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A chef/owner whom I respect once told me that only amateurs—-those, in other words, without a firm grasp of the costs of running full-service restaurants—-have a hard time understanding the sometimes high price of dishes. Well, I felt like a rank amateur on Sunday afternoon at the new Lebanese Taverna in Bethesda.
A couple of dining companions and I ordered a selection of mezze along with a Lebanese-style pizza and a mixed grill. We opted for the latter item, a $19 indulgence in a sea of single-digit mezze, as an insurance policy—-to insure that we’d have enough to eat in case the mezze proved inadequate. Little did we realize that the reverse would be the case.
The mixed grill, advertised as a “combination of lamb, chicken, and kafta skewers,” turned out to be three pieces of chicken, three of lamb, and one small section of kafta. All combined, the meat couldn’t have filled one skewer, let alone the multiple ones promised on the menu. The platter was rounded out with rice and an almost equal amount of grilled green peppers, onions, and tomatoes, which were left mostly untouched because….well, because we ordered a damn meat platter.
We polished off the meats in no time. Of course. But the more I thought about it, the more pissed off I got. Nineteen dollars for seven small pieces of grilled meats and some veggies? I asked the waitress if Lebanese Taverna’s mixed grill always includes, essentially, one skewer worth of meat. She was kind. She was patient. She noticed there was no meat left on our platter.
“Yes, I know we ate the evidence,” I said, before detailing the amount of meat we had just flash-consumed. She confirmed that my accounting was correct. That was the portion size.
We all knew what we were really paying for with that minimalist meat platter with the high price tag. We were paying for this new, upscale playpen, located in a $77 million development project in the heart of status-sniffing Bethesda. It’s a soaring, high-ceiling space. Elegant glass chandeliers, which look like champagne bubbles floating to the top of a flute, hover over several booths. The stone (granite?) bar has a beam of light running along its length; it turns colors every few seconds, red, green, blue. Massive, monolithic shelves divide sections of the dining room. If you know Lebanese Taverna only from its casual cafes, this place is a shock. It’s Middle Eastern cuisine elevated to fine-dining status.
The problem, of course, is that we’re used to the same food at significantly cheaper prices—and without all the fanfare. We’ll adapt, eventually. We may even grow to accept and love this interpretation of ethnic eating. But at the moment, when we were hungry, we all agreed yesterday that we’d take more meat, and less atmosphere.