I had the opportunity to dine at a really good Silk Road Restaurant while attending a recent scientific conference in Baltimore, Maryland – The Lebanese Taverna. Having picked through a thoroughly unappetizing box lunch at the conference while listening to a series of lectures, I was in the mood for some good food. I had spotted the restaurant on the cab ride to the hotel and meeting venue and knew I had to try it. I rounded up a small group of collegial friends – politely accepted the regards of another colleague who said the restaurant choice was too “weird” for him – and set off for the gem of a restaurant on Baltimore’s waterfront: The Lebanese Taverna.
The atmosphere of the restaurant was immediately attractive and blended elements of both western and Middle-Eastern design. The high, curved ceilings were reminiscent of spinnaker sails and the long, low couches set by the tables felt more like a contemporary wine bar than a Levantine restaurant, but the decorative details of traditional glass and pierced metal lanterns and the soft undercurrent of Lebanese music softened the modern edge of the setting. The scent of grilled meats that wafted from the kitchen also hinted of the great meal that was to follow.
The large menu features an elaborate selection of mezze that can be ordered a la carte for a small or large meal, a small selection of traditional and western salads, and vegetarian and omnivore main dishes that feature kabobs, kofta and schwarma of vegetables, fish and seafood, chicken, lamb and beef.
Since two of my dinner companions were not well versed in the food of the region, we ordered the Rotisserie Table Mezze which is a sampler of appetizers and main dishes that is a great introduction to Lebanese food. Our appetizers included an amazing hummus with strong overtones of garlic and citrus; a baba ganoush with a fine depth of flavor; grape leaves stuffed with rice, tomatoes, mint and parsley; a delicately spiced tabooleh, tiny, kibbeh meat balls with pine nuts, almonds in a yogurt sauce; and fatayer b’sbanigh which are small pastries filled with spinach, onions, pine nuts and sumac. I ordered a side of laban which is a dipping sauce made of yogurt and cucumbers and spiced with garlic and mint and of course there was plentiful amounts of fresh, warm flatbread.
My third companion was a brilliant and beautiful woman who directs a scientific division in her institution. Pat sends me marigold petals and hot peppers from her garden, experiments with cooking ethnic food and qualifies as a serious foodie herself. We both tucked into the platter of delicacies, raving about the tastiness of the dishes. Our companions were slower to start eating the unfamiliar dishes, but soon outpaced us as the deliciousness of the food overcame their suspicion of the unknown. As we ate, we also sampled some of the wine on their long wine list. The portions of the samplers were so large that the two novices thought that the appetizers were the entire meal and were amazed when a large platter of grilled meats – a pile of kabobs – were presented to us as our main course.
The skewered lamb “shish” kebabs were tender and flavorful and accompanied by grilled onions, peppers and tomatoes. The ground lamb kebabs or kofta were delicious and spiced with sumac, garlic, onions and herbs such as mint and cilantro. The chicken and fish dishes were also authentic, delicious and like the rest of the grilled offerings gently flavored by the wood fire it cooked over. The shrimp kabob came with a delicious tahini dipping sauce made from almonds and pistachios.
Alas, we were all too full to sample the desserts, but in all the meal provided delicious and solid introduction to Lebanese food for some and a welcomed return to the foods of the Levant for others. When compared to the Western Asian versions of these dishes, the tabooleh was more gently flavored and heavier on the herbs than those found in Armenia, while the stuffed grape leaves were similarly delicate when compared to a spicy, citrusy Georgian dolma. The grilled meats were also of a quieter, gentler variety than those from Afghanistan or Pakistan with copious amounts of ground black pepper, cinnamon or cloves to spice them. The sumac familiar to some from their adventures in Azeri or Iranian cuisine were found in large quantities as was the spiced yogurt with cucumbers used as a dipping sauce.
We spent the evening dining and talking at a leisurely pace – which I found delightfully authentic as well. Dinner often goes on for hours in countries of the eastern Mediterranean as it does in the more familiar European countries surrounding the western shores.
If not already evident, I highly recommend the Lebanese Taverna. The great news is that it has sister restaurants in Washington, DC, and in several locations in Northern Virginia as well. It is a wonderful restaurant for both omnivore and vegetarian diners or a mixed group. It is a wonderful restaurant if you want to try Lebanese food for the first time, or if you want to sink in a bit deeper to a rich and varied cuisine that has many relatives along the Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley)