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The Aly family, former owners of Pasha Cafe, must have questioned the wisdom of moving from Arlington to Woodley Park, even though the differences between the two locales are not terribly stark. Pasha Cafe (which exists under new ownership) pretty well personifies the appeal of NoVa ethnic dining. Its Anywhere, U.S.A., dining room cannily belies the implied exoticism of its Egyptian menu; it’s pleasantly elegant enough to turn senators into regulars, comfortably ironic enough to make fans of people like my friend Jim. Pasha’s food is affordable and sporadically awesome, and under the Alys’ watch, the restaurant enjoyed the kind of minimum-20-minute-wait success that you’d think would spell e-x-p-a-n-s-i-o-n to most restaurateurs.
But the Alys are not the Murdochs. The family of five didn’t think it could afford to properly run two restaurants at once, so when a bigger space became available in Woodley, their options were two: move or pass. The family opted for the “challenge,” says chef/host/waiter Tamer Aly, and opened Medaterra, in the space that Saigon Inn formerly occupied, a little over two months ago, becoming one of the few Woodley Park restaurants worthy of its spacious sidewalk patio.
Medaterra bears little resemblance to its parent restaurant, which means Pasha loyalists may find the new joint wanting. For starters, Medaterra is more cool than homespun. Following the lead of Jandara, its Thai neighbor, Medaterra strives to bring color to style-deprived Woodley, and with its sunshine-sunset walls and ocean-blue water glasses, the restaurant stands out like a Vogue model at a bowling match.
More significantly, the move to the city has prompted Tamer Aly, who designed Medaterra’s menu, to cut a wider culinary swath, meaning that some of the funkier, Egyptian-associated items like moulkia, a spinachlike green featured at Pasha, have been jettisoned to make room for dishes that hint of France, Spain, and points west of Egypt in North Africa.
But despite the shifts in location and cuisine, Aly still thinks small. Medaterra’s mezze menu, like Pasha’s, dwarfs its list of entrees. In fact, if you’ve got 75 bucks and 10 or so friends, you can enjoy a 24-item appetizer survey and still not claim to have tried them all. I bemoan the absence of foula lemon-and-garlic flavored dip served at Pashaon all the menus that I’ve seen (they change periodically); but nonetheless, Medaterra operates with the understanding that a fresh pita is only as good as the dip it accompanies. With hummus available either infused with seasonal herbs or topped with sauteed tomatoes and a choice of chicken or spiced lamb, only a nitwit would order the stuff plain.
Or at all, for that matter. Adept as Medaterra is at preparing common Middle Eastern-style noshes, the best mezze are entree items cut down to size. Grilled salmon medallions topped with golden raisin puree were a hit at Pasha and are just as good here, and the fried eggplant, cloaked with a minty yogurt sauce, has the crisp lightness of tempura. The closest thing on the menu to a conventional salad is more precisely an excuse to eat plump strips of silken Syrian cheese, grilled and set on a bed of arugula. The kitchen is capable of coughing up an occasional dudthe string beans are mushy; and the night we’re delivered scorched grilled asparagus I’ll remember as the closest I’ve ever come to eating charcoalbut mistakes are easier to stomach when they’re small. And I’d eat a platter of that asparagus to get to the garlicky baby red potatoes in roasted-red-pepper sauce, the baklava drizzled with citrus honey, or the lamb chops: Who knew lamb and tahini could peacefully coexist outside of a pita?
Except for the obligatory kebabs and a flawless lamb shank, the world outside Medaterra’s mezze menu is almost entirely aquatic. The bad news is that the restaurant doesn’t buy fish by the truckloadI have yet to visit when the kitchen isn’t out of sea bass and smeltand the good news is that you won’t be served last week’s catch. The rainbow trout is undeniably fresh and shot through with garlic, and, like most of the entrees, served over a bed of couscous.
Aly isn’t the type to thread meat on a skewer and leave it at that: He turns swordfish into tasty brochettes and chooses shrimp plump enough to withstand being sauteed in a head-clearing, Indian-inspired sauce. His “sea fusion” is an admirable attempt to give fish stew a Mediterranean twist, so I try to ignore that most of the mussels are closed.
The only moving pains the Alys seem to have suffered are of a personal nature, which is surprising given how warmly they embraced patrons at Pasha. One evening, our waiter acted as if it were our fault that he waited an hour to tell us that the kitchen was out of an entree we’d orderedI still think I should have been the prickly one on that occasion. But he made good later, bringing us free wine and an explanation: “Change is difficult.”
Medaterra, 2614 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 797-0400.
Enough readers liken their dining experiences to sexual ones that I’ve entertained thoughts of forwarding my
e-mails and phone messages along to some kind of specialist. Take the following description of the avgolemono soup at Ambrosia: “It’s cig worthy. Throw away the vibrator worthy. Like a three-way only not as messy.” Picturing anything sexy transpiring in this scruffy, family-oriented, Greek/Italian joint isn’t what I would call appetizing, but I’ll admit to knowing where the reader’s coming from. The soup in question does have certain mood-setting qualities; thickened with egg yolks and flavored with large amounts of lemon, it slides down the throat more easily than any potion I can imagine. Whoever coined the term “cure-all” certainly had access to a pot of avgolemono. As for the three-way comparison…Never mind.
Ambrosia, 1765 Rockville Pike, Rockville, (301) 881-3636.Brett Anderson
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