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Some restaurants are well-run, some restaurants are not, and in between, experience has shown me, you find forms of mildly satisfying mediocrity. Neyla defies this logic. Take a seat and you’ll immediately notice how much attention is paid to details. Bundled curtains swoop down from the ceiling like velvet ribbon meant for gift-wrapping sports cars. Pita bread flows from the display kitchen crisp and bloated with air. The expansive front patio is populated with a well-pressed staff of eager beavers so dead-set on pleasing that you feel obliged not to let them down.
“Have you dined with us before?” The question marks the beginning of every meal, and whatever your answer is, it doesn’t seem to influence the drill that follows. A rectangular plate adorned with zahtar-dusted pita crisps, Lebanese pickles, and cool, creamy strained yogurt arrives on cue, at which point your server will spiel on each item as if he could still taste them on his tongue. After a rather lengthy exchange pertaining to water choice (“Tap?” “Are you sure?”), the menu, which includes both modern and traditional takes on Lebanese meze and Mediterranean entrees, is explained in detail. Numerous inquiries as to your level of satisfaction follow. One night, my friend and I order a quite delicious Lebanese dessert composed of pistachio-studded cream pudding, banana slices, and honey to share. Our waiter looks utterly heartbroken. Are we sure we don’t want something else? More wine? Coffee? Something?
But service so obtrusive that it leads to waiters’ suffering separation anxiety doesn’t necessarily have to doom a restaurant. On our first visit to Neyla, all the coddling adds up to a genuinely pleasurable experience. Our meze platter contains some of the best frills-free Middle Eastern food this side of Lebanese Taverna’s: fluffy, lemon-kissed hummus; baba ghanoush redolent of deep smoke; tart, parsley-rich tabbouleh; stout, crunchy falafel nestled atop a sharp, radish-beet slaw; feta tossed with ripe tomatoes, scallions, and zahtar; more strained yogurt (it’s called labne).
Tender, juicy chicken shawarma is served like a quesadilla, sandwiched between pita slices with “garlic whip,” basically an egg-free aioli. Intent on making a meze feast for three, we flesh out the platter with some fried calamari, which is chewy but well-spiced with onions, hot peppers, and more zahtar. Granted, our staff (there are at least three and perhaps as many as six servers working our table) seems rather displeased with our choice of meal (someone’s telling people to push entrees—hard), but we’re not.
Given that Neyla has an outpost at the MGM Grand in Vegas, it’s not terribly surprising that its Georgetown staff has been instructed to be rainmakers. But all the hard selling becomes less easy to stomach when the wares aren’t up to snuff—especially relative to their prices. The second-to-last act of one Neyla dinner is a study in what happens to ordinary kabobs that have been left on the grill too long. The dish costs just under $27.
Positioning simple meat skewers and dips on a menu that’s also chock-full of dishes such as feta-stuffed steak with beet demiglace apparently is part of Neyla’s strategy to elevate all of its food to the level of its sleek surroundings and upmarket prices. But the plan backfires: The minty green salad that starts off one meal promisingly fades quickly from memory. The fried crab “cigars” that follow are limp, virtually saturated with a sumac-flavored tomato sauce and what the menu calls “tamarind zig zag.” All of the fashionably tweaked dishes that we try fall similarly flat. A roasted duck breast, paired with some moist duck-leg confit, is cooked to a turn, but the character of the meat is lost under a flood of Grand Marnier glace that would be better suited for a sundae. Pan-roasted tuna is only a hair better—scrape away the avalanche of mango compote and chickpea salad and you’re left with a rare, deeply spiced piece of fish. A plate of katafi-wrapped shrimp, plump and crisp in their shredded pastry shells, rates as the best entree of the bunch. Too bad its bed of mushy julienned vegetables tastes as if it had been scooped from a steam-table bucket.
Neyla took over an angular, high-ceilinged Georgetown space that’s been the site of several restaurant busts in the past. Its vast, tree-shaded patio is a serious draw, and the dining room inside, bisected by a long, narrow, marble-topped communal table, seems to have been built as an homage to the restaurant’s namesake—the Mediterranean spirit, according to the menu, of prosperity, abundance, and success.
The setting is actually pretty marvelous—which makes it all the more disappointing that the staffers are overmanaged to the point that their thoughts never seem to be their own. Everything on the menu is, of course, “delicious,” and the servers’ refusal to stray from the script can be downright rude. One night, a waiter interrupts our conversation so many times that my friend and I try ignoring him in an effort to get some peace. Later, after we point out that the wine we’re delivered isn’t the vintage that we ordered off the wine list, a manager type appears to inform us that the two separate vintages are “exactly the same wines,” and he’s so sincere that I’m willing to believe that he doesn’t even know that he’s feeding us shit.
Neyla, 3206 N St. NW, (202) 333-6353.
One reader is so enamored of Mixtec proprietor Pepe Montesinos’ regional Mexican cuisine that she recently refused to leave midmeal even though her boyfriend dumped her during the chips-and-salsa course. “I wasn’t that into him,” she explains. And, besides, Mixtec’s tacos, assembled out of thick, soft, corn tortillas, are that good. “Plus,” the reader adds, “I wasn’t done with my margarita yet. I wasn’t going to let that jerk keep me from finishing my margarita.”
Mixtec, 1792 Columbia Rd. NW, (202) 332-1011. —Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.