The Lebanese Taverna in Harbor East has been around long enough to feel like one of the old-timers in the development. When it opened, back in 2007, the restaurant was a block or two off the beaten path. You'd have had to know to look for it.
But now, Lebanese Taverna is in the middle of everything. To its back, there's the new Four Seasons Baltimore Hotel, and right across the street the first Under Armour "brand store" opened last month.
And speaking of brands, the Lebanese Taverna is a successful one across two beltways.
The Abi-Najm family opened the first Lebanese Taverna restaurant in Arlington in 1979. The Lebanese Taverna Group now operates six full-service restaurants, including the one in Harbor East, as well as four quick-service cafes, a market and a catering operation, mostly located in the Washington suburbs.
In a city with a big Middle Eastern population, like Detroit, you might not be able to pick Lebanese Taverna's baba ghanoush out of a crowd. But in these parts, the restaurant has successfully staked out an entire cuisine. Lebanese Taverna has succeeded, year after year, with consistency, sturdiness and reasonable prices.
In January, Lebanese Taverna introduced what it calls a new streamlined menu at its six full-service restaurants. The new menu is simpler in format and has considerably fewer items than the old menu, which was a bound multi-page affair that some guests found imposing. The change, Lebanese Taverna said, would make for a better dining experience.
The revised menu has some new items, too. There's shakshouky, a sharp and savory salad of roasted eggplant with scallions, tomatoes and garlic in a pomegranate molasses dressing, all brightened with a garnish of pomegranate seeds. And there's the shrimp arak, a fine entree of sauteed shrimp served over a bed of pearl couscous, which has the pretty and pleasing quality of orzo. Its refreshing sauce is made from lemon, cilantro, and arak, a strong anise-flavored liqueur.
The main part of the menu consists of Lebanese Taverna favorites, which, as far as I can tell, haven't been tampered with. Absolutely get the hommos trio, an impressive presentation of the restaurant's fabulously smooth chickpea spread with, variously, chicken shawarma, spiced ground beef and lamb, spicy tomatoes and feta.
On the plate, fried artichoke hearts look wan and underdone but, dipped in a lemon butter sauce, they dissolve the second they hit your tongue. I liked the plate of firm little kibbeh, which are fritters made with beef, lamb, bulgur and pine nuts. It's an innocuous appetizer. But I was really after the kibbeh nayeh, a made-to-order dish of lamb tartare, bulgur and onions. It wasn't available, though. Neither, later, was the sweet cream-cheese crepe we wanted.
Plenty of good options remain on the entree list. In addition to nine fully plated entrees, there are separate options built around kabobs and fatteh — a kind of layered casserole of chickpeas and yogurt that involves fried pita chips. We tried the fatteh with fried eggplant and came away feeling that something was lost in translating a traditional home-based dish into a restaurant entree. We liked parts of it, but not all of it.
From three tempting lamb choices, we chose the mouzat, which turned out to be a beautifully handled braised lamb shank, served simply with bulgur pilaf and a full, rich and richly herbed tomato sauce.
I'm all for streamlining. But something's lost, too. While the old format promoted a kind of leisurely, Middle-Eastern approach to the meal — a plate of this, a bowl of that — the new format lays out, pretty clearly, a basic progression of appetizer, entree and maybe a dessert. There remain only two vegetarian entrees, but there is the option of loading up on appetizers and salads.
You might end up finding it, as I did, a bit businesslike. But I've always thought there was something business-y, or at least impersonal, about Lebanese Taverna's Harbor East location. Occupying a curving corner of a waterfront apartment building, it's the kind of handsome, neutrally appointed, tastefully furnished space I'm supposed to like. But I find it cold and institutional.
Part of it is the staff, who might ask for your drink order while you're still pulling out a bar stool to sit on, or bring your check before you've asked for it. What's the rush?
From conversations with friends and colleagues, I've learned that my take on the atmosphere and the service is not universally shared. They love Lebanese Taverna. I'm glad to know it. Harbor East needs reasonably priced restaurants like Lebanese Taverna.
Where: 719 S. President St., Harbor East
Contact: 410-347-0880, lebanesetaverna.com
Open: For lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers $6-$10; entrees $17-$24
Food: Middle-Eastern cuisine, with dips and kabobs
Service: Dutiful and well-informed but passive
Best dishes: braised lamb shanks; shrimp arak; roasted eggplant
Parking: Valet parking and nearby lots
Children: Plenty of choices for good eaters, and there's a children's menu on request
Dietary considerations: The menu notes gluten-free options
Noise level: Not loud, but acoustics can make normal conversation difficult
[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: ****; Very Good: ***; Good: **; Promising: *]