A couple weeks ago at a Bookalokal event we were asked by T. Marshall Fawley III, a founding member and CEO of Scofflaws Den LLC, which places are our favorites for cocktails. Without needing to think too hard about our answer we rattled off (in no particular order) Red Light, Lupo Verde, and the POV Rooftop at the W Hotel. We have a strong affinity for creative, upscale cocktails that basically drink like the nectar of gods. After sampling the six new summer cocktails at Lebanese Taverna created by JP Caceres and The Menehune Group, we’re saying right now, we’ve found a game changer – or at the very least a new favorite. Well… at least until we have a chance to check out Soi 38 (another project by The Menehune Group).
About a year and a half ago the 24ish year old location for Lebanese Taverna at Woodley Park closed their doors for 4 months to undergo extensive renovations. When we say extensive we mean the only thing original to the location that remained through the gutting of the interior was the vaulted ceiling that most people never noticed. Re-designed by Francisco Beltran of Design Republica (also the designers of Soi 38, Campono, Harry’s Tap Room, etc. ), Lebanese Taverna received a modern face lift that spoke to their culture and fashion-forwardness of the district lurching them (we hope) back into the competitive restaurant scene. One must not mistake the Woodley Park location for the original, however. The owners, Tanios and Marie Abi-Najm and their 5 children who immigrated from Lebanon to escape civil war, have been in the biz 35 years with their original location in Arlington, VA. However they went relatively unnoticed until opening their first location in DC. Since then, the family has opened 4 more restaurants (6 total), 4 cafes, and a market. Talk about realizing the “American dream”.
We had the extreme pleasure of being personally guided through the ingredients and process of each new cocktail by Chad Spangler – the Director of Operations for the group. The goal: to create an innovative and accessible cocktail menu using traditional Lebanese ingredients from their market including Jallab, Arak, Almaza beer, lemon, and fig. And, each cocktail was loosely paired with a dish or two from the menu – some of which are new for the summer.
In addition to the fresh pita bread and olive oil with a spice blend of thyme, sesame, and sumac, the meal began with Watermelon & Feta Salad (French feta, roasted pistachios, mint, sea salt) – one of the new summer dishes to grace the menu, and the national dish of Lebanon, Tabouleh Salad (parsley, bulgur, tomatoes, onions, mint, lemon dressing). Both dishes were paired with the Arak 75 (Arak, brandy, lemon, Jallab syrup, cardamom bitters, sparkling wine, lemon twist), a play on the traditional French 75 cocktail. Obviously we had no idea what Arak and Jallab actually are before Chad gave us a quick lesson: Arak, similar to absinthe, is distilled from brandy once before the addition of anise, then distilled again. Jallab, popular in Lebanon, is a sweetener made with flavors of rose water, date, and raisin. (Scroll down for their Tabouleh recipe.)
It should come as no surprise that Lebanon consumes quite a bit of seafood, geographically speaking. (We failed geography in school so don’t ask us to give you directions anywhere. We’ll get you lost.) Octopus, squid, prawns, and sea urchin are not unusual food items. Which led us to our second course consisting of new-to-the-menu Grilled Octopus Salad (Lebanese potato salad, tarragon, Italian parsley, lemon) and Hommus (pureed chickpeas, tahini, garlic, lemon) alongside a Taverna and Tonic (Beefeater Gin, Lt Saffron-Tonic Syrup, Soda Water, Lime, Orange Moon).
“Do you know why we use a single large piece of ice instead of smaller crushed pieces?”
“Er… because it’s prettier?”
“Well… sorta, but a large piece of ice melts slower than multiple smaller pieces, allowing the drink to maintain its carbonation for a longer period of time.”
Although we’re typically not gin people, we really kind of adored this drink and of course being schooled about ice. We also had to ask how they got their hommus so smooth (very similar to Zaytinya’s) and were told that their hommus is made from dried chick peas that they soak over night before cooking for four hours. That explains it! (Scroll down for their Hommus recipe.)
Next came the pairing of Blind Date (Bulliet rye whiskey, lemon, Jallab syrup, Caraway cordial, Almaza beer) with Kibbeh (stuffed beef and lamb, bulgur, pine nut, almond fritters), the second national dish of Lebanon, and it was no mistake. A cocktail that “drinks like a beer” served alongside with what can only be considered Lebanese fried meatballs, aka “bar food”, makes absolute intentional sense. The cocktail modeled after a shandy with a foamy head, and our favorite of the six, follows the growing popular trend of beer cocktails. A trend we hope never dies.
Two more menu items appeared at the bar along with two more drinks. Shrimp Arak (sauteed onions, garlic, lemon-herb-arak sauce) a strong, flavorful dish was paired with our least favorite of the cocktails; Beirut Mule (Arak, lemon, simple syrup, ginger beer). However, saying we have a “least favorite” really means just that. A beautiful and well executed drink, if you like ginger then this is for you. If not…well, there are 5 other more-than-viable contenders to choose from. Following the shrimp, out came the Fatayer Spinach (spinach stuffed pastry) and one of Lebanese Taverna’s most popular cocktails, the Taverna Collins (Smirnoff vodka, lemon, Jallab syrup, dry vermouth, Arak, soda water).
And finally the entree course consisting of the new Summer Mouzat (slow cooked lamb shank, artichoke, potato, tomato, lamb reduction), and Lamb Kabob (marinated grilled lamb, vegetables Lebanese rice) paired with their number one selling drink; For Fig Sake (Evan Williams bourbon, lemon Lt Fig Syrup, Caraway cordial). The syrup, made with imported Turkish figs and made in house makes this particular drink quite special in our opinion. The drink itself is based off of a Whiskey Sour – you got your citrus, your spirit and your sugar. Once again there’s no mistake with this and the Collins being placed at the top of the drink menu – consideration of menu placement is a big deal. While the lamb kabob was delicious it was the summer mouzat that stole the show for us. Sourced from Elysian Fields Farm/Pure Bred Lamb in PA, the holistically raised lamb is braised for 4 hours. The final result? A completely fork tender and melt-in-your-mouth experience. And, the vegetable accompaniment was as “comfort food” delicious as it was interesting with the addition of the artichoke.
We’re impressed with the new cocktail program by The Menehune Group happening at Lebanese Taverna, and it’s great to see that their bar supports and enhances to the quality of the entire restaurant experience. Next time we’re asked where we’ve found some of the best cocktails in the District, we’ll be pointing you toward Woodley Park.
(Click on Recipes to Enlarge)
2641 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington, DC, 20008
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