FOOD: Back to the Lebanese Butcher
March 25, 2010
If you take the Eden Center out of the equation, I think the Lebanese Butcher is the city’s most intriguing restaurant. Not only does it have a wide-ranging, extremely affordable menu of home-style food, but it also has a killer butcher shop and grocer right next door, which is owned by the same family and predates the restaurant.
Naturally, many of the locally raised halal meats and imported Lebanese goodies at the butcher make appearances on the menu at the small café. It’s a unique set-up that ensures quality and affords diners the chance to stop by two fun places in one visit. That’s the reason I took a few trips there last June and wrote a short piece about it for the Falls Church Times.
Now, generally after I write a review of a place it means the end of me going there for some time. But I haven’t been able to get the Lebanese Butcher out of my head. While I enjoyed the few items I tried off their menu—especially the garlic-laced chicken shawarma sandwich—I knew there were some special dishes I missed out on. For months every time I drove by I thought about stopping in to try the aya maza, a 10 appetizer sampler for $19.95 meant to be split between two people.
This week I caved, dragging my brother along with me on a mission to tackle the aya maza. Not being a huge fan of Lebanese food to begin with, he was not thrilled about this mission. I assured him that there would be good things on the plate.
We walked into a half-full restaurant—the busiest I had ever seen the Lebanese Butcher. The lone waiter on duty was scurrying around taking orders and a short woman, whose head was barely visible from behind the front counter, was frantically putting them together.
We seated ourselves and were promptly given menus. I already knew what I wanted, of course, but I took one anyways because reading restaurant menus is one of my favorite things to do. When I saw the chicken shawarma sandwich in print I remembered just how good it was and I decided we needed to get it. I figured it alone would convert my brother to Lebanese food.
I was hoping I would be able to choose what comprised our aya maza, but I had a sneaking suspicion that the sampler, as most are, was predetermined. The waiter confirmed my suspicions when he started rattling off what came with it. He had me at fried kibbeh.
Ten minutes later I saw my plates starting to pile-up on the countertop. I was tempted to go up there and grab them for myself because our waiter had mysteriously disappeared. It was only ten feet away. I could do it. A few minutes went by with nearly all ten of the plates just sitting on the counter waiting to be taken to my table. Finally the waiter shuffled in and started to bring them over in shifts. I almost applauded I was so excited.
Soon our table was covered end-to-end with nine plates of appetizers and a chicken shawarma sandwich. The only thing we were waiting on was the still-cooking soujuk, a cayenne and cumin spiced lamb sausage somewhat similar to the North African merguez.
We dug in before the soujuk arrived. I’ll spare you the details of each and every dish in the sampler. Obviously there were some dishes that were tastier than others, but on the whole I wasn’t really thrilled or really disappointed with any of it. It was merely good across the board. My brother didn’t care for any of it—not even the chicken shawarma sandwich I had relentlessly hyped up.
Even though I wasn’t as awe-struck with the meal as I’d hoped to be, I still enjoyed the interactive nature of the experience. The aya maza came with a huge serving of pita (which, sadly, is still the mediocre store-bought variety that I complained about in June) and each dish could be mixed and match with other dishes, often resulting in improvement.
The soujuk, which came out mere minutes after we started eating, was okay on its own but much better wrapped in some bread with a tart tomato-cucumber salad, briny pickles, and lettuce. The kibbeh was nice with the labne, a thick garlic-yogurt spread that was the surprise of the night. The falafel benefitted from a bath in some hummus and a ton of pickles. And the pungently lemony grape leaves, studded with rice and tomatoes, were subdued a little when wrapped in bread.
The only thing that couldn’t be improved upon with pickles or hummus or baba ghanoush was the makanek, a pint-sized lamb sausage that was too heavily spiced with cinnamon and cloves for my taste.
Would I get the aya maza again? Probably not. But I’m glad I tried it and I’m still supremely confident that the Lebanese Butcher has some gems on its menu that I just haven’t uncovered yet. The butcher seems to specialize in lamb, so my next visit will be more lamb-centric.
The bottom line: I’d choose the Lebanese Butcher over any of the chains on Broad St. any day of the week. It’s exactly the sort of family run, made-from-scratch place that I love to patronize—and that the City of Falls Church is lucky to have.
The Lebanese Butcher and Restaurant is located at 113 E. Annandale Rd., Falls Church City, VA, 22046. (703) 533-2903.
By Jimmy Scarano
March 26, 2010