Sunday, November 13, 2005

Restaurant 63: Nizam's (Vienna, Virginia)

Doner Kebab: The lone bright spot of the meal.

LOCATION: 523 Maple Avenue West, Vienna, VA
DATE: August 13, 2005
FOOD: Split the mezze plate including Hummus, White Bean Salad, Borek (Fried Cheese), Feta Cheese, Olives, Yogurt covered Eggplant; ENTREE: Doner Kebab (Thinly sliced lamb with dill, covering a grilled pita and yogurt toped with tomato sauce); DESSERT: Dessert Sampler including Baked Pear, Baklava, Milk and Honey Sponge Cake.
BEVERAGE: Pasha Martini, Argentinian Red Wine
PRICE: Courtesy of my mom

As Europe turns inward and the EU’s xenophobia convulses like an epileptic seizure, the probability that Turkey will gain admittance to the unified Western nations becomes increasingly remote. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Ataturk, Turkey has embraced a precarious Western secularization, unique amongst its neighbors. While the EU’s desire to include Turkey wanes, the tremendous and intricate culture of Turkey is overlooked for economic reasons.

One furtive aspect of this culture is the cuisine. Reminiscent of Greek, Lebanese, and other Mediterranean nations, Turkish food centers around roasted and skewered meats, pureed vegetable dips, robust cheeses and honey laden desserts. Nizam’s, a Vienna establishment honored with a place amongst Washingtonian’s Top 100 restaurants for 21 consecutive years, attempts to drape Turkish cuisine in all the elegance and regality of the Europe which keeps the country at arms length. While it takes kebabs above the street cart form, Nizam’s, can’t quite succeed in being the refined European it seeks to be.

The house specialty is the doner kebab. Similiar to the Greek gyro but with a greater diversity of spices, ground lamb is roasted on a spit and then sliced paper thing. In Germany, doner kebab elevates street food to a rarefied level. In Vienna, Virginia, the meat comes on the pita instead of in it, but the taste is just as marvelous. The dish is richly layered – the lamb pieces rest atop pita bread softened by meat drippings and are lathered in a fragrant dill yogurt. The meat is then gently brushed with a forceful tomato sauce. This tiered trio comes off at great effect, producing a creamy and acidic contrast for the succulence of the meat.

But it was in the appetizers and desserts that Nizam’s was closer to stumbling than to Suleiman imperial dominance. A boring mixed mezze plate with the sole highlight of yogurt covered eggplant, left a lot to be desired. The hummus was bland, the feta under salted, the borek forgettable and the white bean mix regrettably cold. The mixed dessert plate was similarly misconstrued, with a commendable baklava backstabbed by a tasteless baked pear and a gelatinous milk and honey custard cake. Combined with service that was more distant than the Dead Sea, Nizam’s excellent doner kebab could not compensate for an otherwise uninspired meal. Fortunately, the nation of Turkey has a lot more to offer Europe than Nizam’s can offer diners. The only question left to ask: Why does Washingtonian view the restaurant so positively?

RATING: 4.8/10

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would suggest to Rockefeller that he or she give Nizam's another try. My visit there Thursday, April 3, was such an affirmation of all the great dining experiences I have had at this fine restaurant that I plan an encore soon. The friend with whom I dined is a world traveler and restaurant connoisseur who had never been to Nizam's;she was so impressed that she plans to return next with with an out-of-town visitor in tow. I was pleased to note that the restrained elegant decor I have though so distinctive at Nizam's had not changed. Colors are soft and decorations and objets d'art, discreet. The service was courteous but unobtrusive -- a hallmark of Nizam's. And happily, our conversation did not have to pause, as is often the case when dining out, to answer the too-frequently asked question, "Is everything all right?" Of course, everything was so much more than that. The salad was superb and a visual delight and our entrees were rare treats for two self-anointed gourmets who had anticipated a memorable dining experience and were rewarded with just that. Mr. Nizam is a dignified presence, he does not intrude himself on his guests, but is smilingly friendly when approached. Schooled in Istanbul in the art of the restaurateur, he is proud of his rare jewel of a resturant which he has operated with a dedication to excellence since Nizam's opened its doors in Vienna 30 some years ago. He loves his work, his restaurant, and his customers. He has done well. Vera Gottschalk Jensen