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The Dish: Snail Kibbeh
Where to Get It: Zaytinya, 701 9th St. NW; (202) 638-0800; zaytinya.com
What It Is: Kibbeh are normally made with ground beef formed into football shapes that are fried or pressed into a pan like a meatloaf, so this preparation takes a chef-y license with the term. The bottom of each snail is crusted with a meatless mixture of potatoes, bulgur wheat, cumin, and Aleppo pepper. The snails receive a shallow fry until the bottoms crisp up, then they’re served atop creamy labneh (strained yogurt) spiked with a baharat spice mix that includes turmeric, cumin, clove, and fenugreek.
What It Tastes Like: The predominant flavor comes from the snails, which pack a welcome earthy taste, but the whole dish comes off as mild despite the advertised spices. It would be more successful if it weren’t served lukewarm, which Chef Michael Costa says is intentional—and perhaps inevitable since only the bottoms of the snails are cooked and the labneh is cold. Still, Costa says it’s been on the menu for years and has outperformed expectations, adding that it’s actually popular for a snail dish.
The Story: Costa describes this as a Lebanese twist on the French appetizer of snails in a pastry cup known as escargot vol-au-vent. He sought to make high-quality snails more palatable to Americans, who he admits generally don’t dig their chewing gum-like texture. “What I wanted to do was to serve it in a way that enhanced its natural texture,” he says.