Good luck finding Maydan on your maiden voyage. Few restaurants play as hard to get as the one that shares its address with a branch of La Colombe Coffee, out front of which you might find reservation-holders for Maydan, staring into their smartphones to double-check the location. With the aid of a passer-by from the neighborhood, or a clerk at Colombe, lost diners might be steered to the nearby alley, the end of which finds an unmarked entrance leading to a dim foyer graced by a smiling host or two. One of them opens an interior door to reveal ... OMG, are we still in Washington?
First-timers can’t help but feel like Dorothy stepping from sepia Kansas into sparkling Oz at the sight of so many attractive people having so much fun in such an expanse. The biggest draw of all is the fire pit across from the amber-lit bar. The copper top of the oak-fired attraction extends to the 20-foot-high ceiling.
Like the modern American Bresca on 14th Street NW and the Spanish-themed Del Mar in the Wharf, Maydan filled to the brim, and felt like a hit, the day it opened two blocks north of U Street NW. Hats off to Rose Previte, creator of Compass Rose, the beloved source of global small plates, for breathing life into the former Manhattan Laundry site and settling on a recipe, based on Middle Eastern and other flavors, that hasn’t been overdone. The restaurant’s name is the word for a town square or gathering place; Previte, whose mother is Lebanese, says she’s aiming for “joyful chaos” in her new two-story restaurant.
Tending to the front-and-center hearth and the twin clay ovens nearby are two chefs who’ve played with fire before: Compass Rose chef Gerald Addison, once with Parts & Labor in Baltimore, and Chris Morgan, whose résumé includes the latter restaurant as well as the Dabney in Blagden Alley. Together with Previte, the chefs (both co-owners) trekked over the summer to the Republic of Georgia, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey, all of which enjoy representation here.
The menu of dips, salads, kebabs and cooked beasts to share is a brisk read, although the seven condiments (a buck a bowl) can make for endless combinations. “Everything is meant to go with everything else,” a server said after her short introduction to the food. Sure enough, toum , a white whip of garlic, lemon and olive oil, improves vegetables as well as meat, and harissa , a dusky red paste of peppers and cumin, lends seductive fire to anything it touches.
“Beiruti” hummus takes its name from the chickpea dip the owners encountered in Lebanon, where fresh chopped vegetables are commonly folded into the garlicky mash. Think all labneh tastes the same? Maydan’s strained yogurt, sprinkled with dried mint, disproves the notion with its delightful tang. The spread that found two of us scraping every speck from its bowl is muhamarra, red bell peppers and toasted walnuts laced with sweet-tart pomegranate molasses. Rounds of flatbread, baked in the clay ovens known as toneebi in Georgia, are the vehicles by which the spreads move from table to tongue.
Kebabs: Ask for “Aleppo,” a ropy wand of garlicky ground lamb that summons Syria with a sprinkling of lightly toasted crushed pistachios. Seafood: Dense yet tender shrimp, warmed over the grill and brushed with chermoula, uses saffron, paprika, garlic and more to stage a little symphony for your taste buds.
Halloumi? I’ve had better grilled cheese.
Servers talk about Maydan’s lamb shoulder as if it’s a misfit toy, a treasure with caveats. “It’s fatty,” we’re told on different visits. “You have to dig for the meat.” But oh, what fun it is once that spice-rubbed lamb, served with sumac-dusted raw onions and carrying some char, lands in your mouth, preferably with a pungent dab of toum. Whole chicken seasoned with coriander and turmeric is pleasing, too, almost as much for the underliner of bread that catches the drippings (“Be sure to eat the bread,” coaches an attendant) as for the centerpiece.
It’s not just the big fire or the cool kids that make the scene so mesmerizing. The design is every bit the bazaar Previte paints when she calls it “midcentury modern meets the Middle East.” Think mismatched chairs, bar tops made interesting with fabric under the cover of resin and wallpaper that summons a garden with its vines.
There are no bad seats per se, simply better ones. With luck, you get shown to a table on the ground floor, either a tall one that you might have to share (I’ve watched strangers exchange numbers by the end of their meals) or the more intime nook, Table 104, nestled under the stairs. “Ari Shapiro is coming in at 8 o’clock, but you can sit here now,” says Previte, grateful for the tips the NPR star gave her regarding Tunisia. (Previte’s husband is David Greene of NPR’s “Morning Edition.”) Benches and stools plumped with pillows frame a low table set with a large brass tray. Part of me wants to hang out until The Voice shows up, just to share my cheat sheet. Any debrief would include filfuli, a mescal cocktail with blood orange and paprika, reminiscent of a paloma; crisp carrots fired up from the grill and harissa; and Romano beans — flat, long, meaty and slicked with citrus, garlic and olive oil.
I’m not so drunk with pleasure that I don’t see Maydan’s wrinkles. They include food that zooms to the table so fast you fret that dinner might end in 10 minutes and tables that can be too small to support everything you want to try. The detail in most need of fixing here is the flatbread. Even on the same night it can be crisp and dry or floppy and underdone. The French-trained chefs acknowledge as much when Morgan says, “we’re still trying to figure it out.” Not that the guys aren’t having fun. “Part of our work is to start a fire every day,” the chef says.
Glass half-full perspective: Maydan has been open only a month. Plus, cutting back on bread means more room for dessert. Yazdi, a Persian-inspired cake drizzled with a syrup of cardamom and rose water, is a lovely way to end a night.
Maydan might not be easy to find, but once you’ve made its acquaintance, the flames and the food become infectious. Joyful chaos? Maydan has it in spades.
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1346 Florida Ave. NW (in the alley).
Open: Dinner daily.
Prices: Appetizers $5 to $11, kebabs and main courses to share $12 to $50.
Sound check: 75 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.