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You expect great, fresh meats from a place with a name like the Lebanese Butcher. You expect reasonable prices and generous portions from a small, tidy restaurant with only nine tables. What you don’t expect, necessarily, is to be greeted by a server wearing a starched white shirt and a black bow tie.
“Good evening. Welcome, welcome,” he says, directing you to a table with all the smooth efficiency of the maitre d’ at a fat-cat steakhouse.
A minute later, he returns with menus. He bows slightly. “We are not a fancy place,” he says, lifting his finger for emphasis and pausing. “But we have the best food.”
His name is Abel, and your instinct—cynical urbanite that you are—is to look askance at such courtesy and charm in such a utilitarian, hole-in-the-wall setting. You doubt his promises. But life is short, and pleasures are never to be sneered at, however odd or unexpected they may be.
One night I ask about a lamb shish kebab. Abel waves me off. I like a waiter who knows how to take charge. “Very good. But tonight we have a special. Cornish hen. On the grill. Excellent.” Again the raised finger. “Trust me. You don’t like it, I take it back and bring you the kebab.”
No need. The hens, cooked over charcoal, are terrific, smoky and almost cinnamony; they’re kept company by an enormous mound of saffron rice studded with pistachios and blanched almonds, a blistered half-onion, and an array of pickled vegetables.
Another night I request a cup of tea. “You like mint?” Abel smiles the smile of a man about to spring a surprise. A few minutes later, he emerges from the kitchen with a long-handled pot. “I made this myself. Like we do in Morocco.”
It’s a soothing brew, sweet and minty, a balm against the whipping cold outside. And Abel keeps it coming. “Relax, relax. Enjoy.” By my third cup, he has brought out a selection of baklava, including a delicious version with roasted pistachios. Gratis.
I don’t know if it’s because the cafe has been mostly empty on each of my visits, or because Abel, who presides over the place as if it were his own, is possessed of an enormous gift for putting people at ease, but every time I’ve eaten here I’ve felt as though I were somewhere that had many more resources at its disposal to put into pampering its customers.
Somewhere that wasn’t—let’s face it—a meat market.
The year-old cafe is an extension of the butcher shop that owner Kheder Rababeh opened with his brother in 1988, when he was 19. All that separates the dining room from the market is a pair of saloon doors. Several times, my meals have been punctuated by the shrill whir of motorized blade sawing through bone.
This is no place for the squeamish, to say nothing of the carniphobic. But for the rest of us, there are benefits to the arrangement, lots of them. Meals in the cafe are more generously portioned than they might otherwise be, and without a doubt fresher and cheaper—nothing on the menu costs more than $12. Rababeh serves only halal meats—butchered in accordance with Muslim law and widely reputed to be of superior quality. And because he also owns a slaughterhouse in Warrenton, Va., he’s his own middleman. The result? Meats that taste the way they should. (The butterflied veal I took home one night yielded a dish of surprising succulence, given that I seasoned it only with salt and pepper before roasting; the lamb was strong and gamy, with an almost grassy finish.)
The kitchen does these meats proud. Lamb, in particular, shines. Every preparation I’ve had, I’ve loved, whether it’s the lamb ouzi (soft, shreddable hunks of meat tucked into a sculpted mound of rice), the lightly charred lamb chops (served four to a plate), the scrumptious shawarma sandwich, the stuffed grape leaves (with ground lamb and rice), or the lamb fateh. With its tiny, crispy chips of fried pita poking out from beneath a wonderfully gloppy mess of yogurt, which itself conceals a layer of long-braised lamb chunks, the fateh looks like a plate of nachos, or a variation of trifle. It’s thrilling eating, owing to the juiciness of the lamb and the garlicky richness of the yogurt, the latter so thick you’re likely to be unintelligible should you attempt to talk in between bites.
As the quality of the yogurt proves, the kitchen pays attention to more than just meat, elevating many of the staples of Middle Eastern cooking above the ordinary. Pan-fried pine nuts add a toasty element to a velvety hummus. The version of tabouleh, heavy on the parsley, is fresher and sharper than I’ve seen in a while. Fattoush, that bready salad, has more crunch and more vinegary bite than you’ve been conditioned to expect elsewhere. And the baba ghanouj bears only a slight resemblance to the dish you’re accustomed to: It’s lush and bright, with a haunting smokiness that lingers long after you’ve eaten it. The biggest disappointment I’ve come across are the mass-produced rounds of pita, a clumsy partner for such light and fetching dips.
Food this good, and this cheap, is cause for celebration. I’ve never exited the Lebanese Butcher without a bag of leftovers, or without having to do a double take at the bill. Or, for that matter, without wondering where the time had gone. Abel saw to that.
Lebanese Butcher & Restaurant, 113 E. Annandale Road, Falls Church, (703) 241-2012.—Todd Kliman
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