YIWEN HU/THE HOYA Greek yoghurt and apricots at Zaytingya.
Greek yoghurt and apricots at Zaytinya.

When I was still in Shanghai, I tried Turkish cuisine and discovered it was not to my liking. Granted, the desserts were mind-blowing, even for someone indifferent to sugar, like me, but the entrees had too strong a flavor for my liking and left me with a negative first impression of Mediterranean cuisine.

Such prejudice dissipated after my first bite into falafel. The origin of these delicious croquettes is disputed. One common theory claims that the dish was born in Egypt and was first made with fava beans. It was then introduced in the Middle East, where the fava beans were replaced by chickpeas. The fervor for falafels has never diminished in the Middle East: The dish is in fact widely considered to be the national dish of Israel. The Lebanese Industrialists’ Association has even raised assertions of copyright infringement against Israel concerning falafel, attesting to both the tense situation in the region and the charm of the chickpea fritters.

Having become a stout lover of falafels, I embarked on a search for a Mediterranean breeze around the capital city. My first stop was Me Jana (2300 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va.). Even from a far distance, my party of two spotted the Lebanese restaurant with an eye-catching blue exterior decor. The interior design was reminiscent of the exotic Middle East: under the romantically dim lighting, candles flames flickered in the red glasses.

Quite to my disappointment, the food served at Me Jana was of uneven quality and, overall, failed to live up to my anticipations. The falafels, of which I had a high expectation, suffered from a lack of flavor. Moreover, the croquettes were lukewarm when served. As a result, even the superb tahini sauce in the bottom could not save the dish. However, the spread was so irresistible that I dipped the complimentary pita bread in it until it was all gone.

The next target on my list was the famed Zaytinya (701 9th St NW) in Penn Quarter. As popular as the restaurant is, the tables were placed rather close to one another. However, the high ceiling and the glass walls prevented me from experiencing the same choking crowdedness that I usually feel in a restaurant this packed.

We started our meal with the complimentary pita pockets, whose fluffy appearance can only be captured by the adjective “cute.” It tasted really good with the hummus spread, but was not as memorable as the pita offered at Me Jana. That being said, every other dish was a glimpse into heaven. Our server joked that if Zaytinya ever decided to make fan T-shirts, the back should be printed with the phrase “Protect the Sauce!” — he spoke the truth. A sauce complimented almost every dish. While they all appeared to be white and creamy, each had its own distinctive taste: Some tasted more garlicky, some played more with yogurt and others were sprinkled with more unknown herbs.

The actual foods themselves were equally satiating. The falafel was crispy on the outside and flavorful on the inside. The Brussels sprouts had crunchy texture and a slightly bitter taste that was toned down by the sauce on top, resulting in a subtle balance of flavors. After trying the also amazing sea scallops, we moved onto the star of the meal: lamb kleftiko. The dish was on the special menu of the day and was greatly recommended by our server. I can hardly find enough words of praise. No words can do justice to the unbelievable heavenliness of the taste and texture of the lamb — it is just that good.

Although each mezza was in relatively small portion, my party of two was rather stuffed upon finishing everything above, so we chose to sample only the mezza portion of desserts. For walnut lovers, I strongly recommend Turkish delight; for apricot lovers, I suggest a try at Greek yogurt and apricots. Both popular desserts have a rich flavor that will guarantee to elicit a sigh of content from those who love the flavor and a frown from those who don’t.

So, when dining at Me Jana, go easy on the mezza and devour your pitas; when dining at Zaytinya, go easy on the pita and wait to be wowed.

Yiwen Hu is a rising sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. Tastes of the District appears every other Wednesday at thehoya.com.

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