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The Fire Gods of Washington, D.C.

At Maydan, co-owner Rose Previte and her team ignite North African and Middle Eastern flavors

Goat is a mainstay special at Washington, D.C.’s Maydan, whose menu takes its cues from the cuisines of North Africa and the Middle East. Sometimes the chefs slather goat shoulders with garlic and spices like cumin, cinnamon, and coriander before bundling them in banana leaves and burying them in embers to cook overnight. Sometimes they simmer the goat meat in clay vessels with saffron and black pepper. Maybe they slow-stew the neck and head and serve it alongside bunches of parsley and mint and cilantro.

Our server is tossing out these temptations as possibilities. Our group is one of the first seated in the dining room on a booked-out Friday night, and she isn’t entirely sure of the specials lineup yet. But then official word comes back from the kitchen: Sorry, no spectacular pageantries of goat after all. There is only one small menu addition — a plate of sharply spiced ground goat meat, inspired by a Moroccan street food staple served in the Medina in Marrakech. Sure, fine. We’ll try it.

The special arrives along with a surge of other dishes we ordered: Beiruti-style hummus, its creaminess textured with diced tomatoes, green peppers, scallions, and parsley; borani, an Iranian yogurt dip, whizzed smooth and dyed magenta with beets; and condiments roiling with garlic, herbs, and chiles. The feast is meant to be attacked using torn hunks of bread — misshapen, flecked, and pocked lobes of flatbread, crackery at its edges like lavash but soft in the middle like pita freshly pulled from the oven.

As for the ground goat: Tasting of sun, warmth, salt, earth, and lifeblood, it’s the best thing on the table. Known phonetically as tehan, the dish combines heart, liver, and trimmed meats from areas like the loin, simmered in a cast-iron pan over coals on one corner of the restaurant’s literal and spiritual center: a blazing fire pit outfitted with grills, a domed copper ventilation system, and two clay ovens for baking the flatbreads. Chile-sparked harissa and preserved lemon balance the goat offal’s iron-rich tang. In Morocco, tehan typically features as a sandwich filling. Here, the server suggests scooping it up with bread, spread first with a bit of hummus. Wise counsel. It all melds together into mind-opening bites.

Such moments of communal feasting, hospitality, and wallops of seasoning are what make Maydan an exceptional endeavor. Owner Rose Previte, along with co-executive chefs Gerald Addison (no relation) and Chris Morgan, trains a spotlight on a swath of the world whose cuisines still rank as vexingly under-appreciated in the United States.

Yes, the foods of Israel, inspired by the success of places like Zahav in Philadelphia and Shaya in New Orleans, are one of the decade’s driving trends. But in my constant travels around the U.S., I find too few restaurants that actually delve in and illuminate the cooking of Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iran, Yemen, and other countries in the region — each with their own culinary traditions, all heavily influenced by centuries of Arab trade routes. North African and Middle Eastern flavors tend to loop through modern American restaurant cooking in vague flashes. Sauces like harissa and herbaceous chermoula are put to broad service to invigorate grilled meats and proteins. Spice mixes like thyme-laced za’atar have become an all-purpose seasoning for breads and vegetables. Most of it comes across as dabbling.

As a restaurateur, Previte is herself a mindful curator whose gift for assembling cuisines smartly narrows with each project. She opened her first D.C. restaurant, Compass Rose, in 2014. An instant success, its menu surveys popular street foods from around the world: Jamaican curried conch, Mexican tacos al pastor, Algerian vegetable tagine, and Peruvian lomo saltado land on the table together, and the restaurant’s most endearing dish is an elongated, rectangular variation of Georgian adjaruli khachapuri, a bread barge filled with molten cheese, egg yolk, and butter that’s blended together by a staffer tableside. Previte draws on her extensive travels as guiding force: Her husband is David Greene, host of NPR’s Morning Edition. Early in their marriage he was stationed in Russia for three years, during which the couple journeyed to nearly three dozen countries.

Baharat-rubbed lamb shoulder at Maydan.

For Maydan, which began service last November, Previte continues to amass staple dishes from different countries, but the focus is more personal. Her mother is Lebanese-American, with roots in the long-established Arabic communities around Detroit (Dearborn, Michigan, in particular is a national treasure for Middle Eastern dining). With Lebanon as its origination point, the menu meanders down the Mediterranean basin, through Egypt and over to Morocco, and then back and inland toward Iran and as far east as the Republic of Georgia. The wonderful flatbread, delivered continuously throughout dinner (and complementary as a fundamental part of the meal), serves as a literal centerpiece but also as a unifying element for the disparate foods from throughout the region.

The space sets an apt scene for the cooking — once you find the restaurant. Maydan sits at the end of a short alley three miles north of Capitol Hill in a building known as the Manhattan Laundry, which was once used as storage for railroad cars. The restaurant has no sign, only a vaunted door painted powdery blue and framed by splotchy-colored bricks and some mosaics of broken tile.

Step inside to a dimly lit foyer, where kind-natured staffers greet arrivants with smiles, and then slip through another door that leads to two floors of brick-lined dining rooms, their walls decorated with the undulating geometric shapes common in Islamic art. Wherever you sit, you’ll pass by the massive fire pit; staring in primordial trance at the flames for a few moments is plenty of inducement to order fire-grazed meats and vegetables.

First, though, home in on the small dishes that hearken to Previte’s heritage, the ones designed to scarf up with bread. Start with the finely calibrated versions of hummus and baba ghanoush and the labneh (strained yogurt) dusted with dried mint. Muhammara, a glossy paste of walnuts and red pepper twanged with pomegranate molasses, should be part of the feast. The regional condiments listed at the bottom of the menu — including harissa, chermoula, tahina, and zhough, a bright green swirl of parsley, cilantro, and cumin — cost a dollar apiece. It’s worth asking for all of them. Be sure, though, to try the toum, a pungent garlic emulsion ubiquitous in Lebanon that looks like lard and draws out the caramelized sweetness in meats. For side vegetables, I suggest two: hindbe, a lemony, garlicky sauté of dandelion greens served room temperature, and carrots that achieve a singular zesty alchemy between the lemon and harissa that flavor them and the flames that cook them.

It is entirely possible to sidle up to Maydan’s bar solo, order a dip or two, a grilled vegetable, a glass of Georgian skin-contact (aka orange) wine from the smart beverage list, and one of the smaller meat or vegetable options, and leave sated. But, really, the point of this food is to come with a group and eat like a family. In this case, make a showpiece out of the smoky lamb shoulder, rubbed with baharat (a dusky-sweet, Lebanese-Syrian mixture of seven spices), roasted in the oven, and finished over the fire pit. It usually costs around $100, but it feeds a group of three or four probably with leftovers. (Whole chicken buffed with turmeric and coriander is a more manageable splurge: It’s a blank canvas on which to wantonly consume all the condiments and dips still unfinished.)

Almond pudding with fresh apricot compote.
A patron entering Maydan through the restaurant’s ornate teal door.
The enticing exterior of Maydan.

I was less enamored by most of the smaller meat options. The koobideh kebab, an Iranian specialty, came overcooked and sapped of any juiciness; ditto a lamb kebab showered in crushed pistachios. Given the generous spirit of the food, a petite portion of barramundi filet felt too diminutive for its $20 price. The surprise win was the entry that came off as the least traditional: slices of duck breast brushed with ras el hanout, Morocco’s answer to India’s garam masala. The spice blend’s shades of ginger and clove fused with the duck’s gentle gaminess under the grill’s intense heat. Given the dry state of the kebabs, it seemed extra impressive that the duck arrived at peak rosiness.

After the starters and the many rounds of bread and the hefty meats and the hard-to-resist vegetables, dessert is not likely much of a priority. Sanely, the two options were both light. A thick, compact crepe came rolled around pastry cream scented breezily with orange blossom cream and scattered with pistachios. Even better was a cumulus almond pudding, topped with a compote of fresh apricot and more ground nuts.

I recognized this pudding as a take on a Lebanese sweet called muhallabia; it left me at the end of my meals thinking about the arc of Previte’s projects. If Compass Rose allows itself the entire world as culinary inspiration, and Maydan narrows the scope to points south and east along the Mediterranean (and inward toward Tehran), I’m rooting for Previte’s next restaurant to be an homage to Lebanon. America is overdue a wholehearted embrace of its cooking. In the meantime, it’s rewarding to note that Maydan has received plenty of regional and national attention. As a champion of under-sung cuisines, and perhaps an overdue presage to restaurants that proudly and distinctly showcase the traditions of individual North African and Middle Eastern countries, it’s a gracious start.

Maydan: 1346 Florida Ave NW, Washington, DC, (202) 370-3696
Dinner Monday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m., Sunday 5-10 p.m. Small plates and spreads, $5-11, Kebabs and proteins $12-22, large-format dishes $35 and up.

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