Google Maps insists that the Library Tavern occupies a spot on this leafy, residential street in Brightwood Park. But at first glance through my car windows, all I can see are squat brick homes and a line of cars parked along the curb. It doesn’t help that the street feels as dark as an executioner’s soul.
Then I spot lights glowing inside the ground-floor space of a four-story condo unit, which looks like it was airdropped straight from Shaw or some other developer’s playground. As I slowly roll my car past the space, I can see people perched at a bar, sipping drinks and watching ballgames. This must be the place: a neighborhood restaurant actually situated in the middle of a neighborhood, sort of like a Philly corner eatery with an urban-renewal sheen.
If the Library Tavern’s location surprises me, so does its cuisine: a diner-esque variety pack of Mediterranean dishes, American comfort foods, pasta plates and — for something completely different — kebabs and other specialties of the Persian table. Only a handful of restaurateurs could assemble such a menu with a straight face, but Siya Sadeghi is one of them.
A native of Azerbaijan, the South Caucasus nation just north of Iran, Sadeghi knows Persian foods well. He also knows restaurants. He and his construction company have literally built a few, including the long-dead Tabaq Bistro, the place that practically pioneered rooftop dining in Washington with a retractable glass dome atop its U Street building. But Sadeghi has also operated restaurants, some of which have auditioned dishes that now grace Library Tavern’s menu. Those panko-coated portobello fries with the surprisingly lush interior? You might have sampled them first at Dunya Restaurant and Bar on Florida Avenue, once a Sadeghi property.
But the real template for Library Tavern lies far, far away from the District. It’s Milad Persian Bistro in Santa Fe, N.M., an arty, stucco-heavy space with a more focused approach to Iranian cooking. Should you analyze the menus from both places, you’ll find that the Persian plates are virtually identical. That’s no coincidence. Milad Persian Bistro is owned by Sadeghi’s son, Neema, a chef who has rejected his father’s philosophy of being all things to all diners.
Risk-taking, of course, has always been the domain of youth. Siya Sadeghi and his veteran chef Rafael Viera understand that a neighborhood haunt does not live by kebabs and kuku sabzi alone — although there are some days when I think I could. The kebabs at Library Tavern are not grilled over hot coals. Instead, they’re cooked over gas with lava rocks and wood chips, which generates enough light, ephemeral smoke to perfume the skewers.
The koobideh are the cool kids of kebab. These meaty tubes, all dark and glistening, are pulled straight off the skewer and placed next to a neat row of Persian rice, the long, saffron-tinted grains almost blinding you with color, yellow and white, white and yellow. The contrast between meat and rice — darkness and light — is startling enough to make you contemplate the cycles of life. Then you take a bite of the koobideh, with its onion sting and sumac tang, and you are suddenly grateful for the fleeting pleasures of existence.
The joojeh kebabs offers a secondary tang: the citrus pucker of lemon, which expands the acid kick of these sumac-sprinkled chunks of Cornish hen, their saffron-saturated skin the color of a Tuscan sun. A buddy and I practically fought over the last bites of this bird. The chenjeh kebab, or marinated blocks of grilled lamb, crust up around the edges after their brush with fire, a welcome counterpoint to the fatty meat. The minty yogurt dipping sauce completes the dish.
Persian flavors dart in and out of other sections on the menu. Among the starters, don’t miss the kashke bademjan, a decadent spread of fried eggplant, caramelized onions, walnuts and sun-dried Persian yogurt. When slathered on soft, spongy triangles of pita, the spread is neither dense nor light, neither sweet nor savory, but some ethereal combination of all. Kuku sabzi is often labeled a Persian frittata, though it’s much less eggy than the Italian original. The herb-rich version at Library Tavern packs a peppery punch and smacks of parsley and barberries, a dried berry with a sweet-and-sour personality. This is a frittata with a hard-bitten manner.
Library Tavern’s attempts at Western fare can test your patience. The puny crab cakes rely too much on their mustard-seed sauce for appeal. The Library burger, a sumac-dusted patty paired with basil aioli, might have hit the mark had the kitchen not tortured the poor, half-pound beast, grilling it three shades past the requested medium-rare. The lamb chops are a serious bummer: scrawny, four-bite wonders paired with a red-wine reduction sauce that’s no match for the off, semi-rancid flavors of the lamb.
True to its name, Library Tavern takes its design cues from those public buildings where people still gather to read in sweet, shushing silence. Dark, clubby shelves are stocked with hardbacks, Nat Geo magazines and trashy novels, an all-inclusive trove that runs the gamut from Noam Chomsky to Jackie Collins. Siya Sadeghi still loves the weight of a good book in his hands. His customers, on the other hand, seem to prefer the warm glow of a flat-screen TV, or the banter of the friendly waitstaff, not a Conan the Librarian among them.
Should you bring a book to Library Tavern, the owner says you can trade it for one on his shelves. It’s a generous policy, but, frankly, I’m content to huddle over his stuffed rainbow trout and attempt to discern its meaning. The whole, head-on fish sports grill marks and comes stuffed with walnuts, an addition that aligns well with the trout’s nutty character. Just as important, this skin-on specimen lets its fish flag fly, clean, strong and fresh. When dabbed in the underlying pomegranate molasses, the flesh is a smoky and tart treat. It hints of Iran and the Mediterranean, but feels right at home here in Brightwood Park.
5420 Third St. NW, 202-506-3867
Hours: 5 to 11:30 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 5 p.m. to midnight Thursday; 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Fort Totten, with a 1-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: $6 to $10 for starters; $7 to $25 for sandwiches, kebabs and entrees.