Exotic Flavor Triangle
[from January 2007 issue]
For foodies, DC has just about everything, from Peruvian and Ecuadorian to East African and Haitian, and, of course, including a low-key Moroccan restaurant with no glitzy décor, belly dancing, or scene setters -- well, a few carpets and some color photos. Named Pyramid, which was formerly under a different name elsewhere, this ethnic eatery is now tucked away behind main Howard University buildings. And this corner restaurant has become something of a neighborhood destination, if recent lunchtime crowds are any indication. As one guy placing an order noted, the food here is really the best, particularly the lamb, he said as he eyed my order. Lunching here with his buddy, he obviously is one of the locals who make this place so hot. Clearly, it's a restaurant not just for students looking for budget-priced meals.
Noteworthy is the range of menu choices in what can best be labeled as a closet-sized eatery. The kitchen at Pyramid -- wide open to public scrutiny behind the orders counter -- offers cooked-to-order meals prepared while you wait: The kitchen dominates the cramped restaurant space, which seats maybe a dozen people and is dominated by an overhead TV and Moroccan carpets. Probably most meaningful, however, is that patrons pay just pennies for what turns out to be mounds of top-rate Middle-Eastern food.
Take the appetizer/main course falafel "meatballs," for example. A standard item on many local veg, non-veg, and Middle-Eastern places around town, these often turn up as squishy, gummy, or greasy items better suited for the dog's food bowl. But the cook here understands the complexities of working with crushed fava beans and/or chickpeas, creating just-crisped, totally non-greasy, and delicately flavored falafel that are positively addictive. These come with a scoop of hummus, the ubiquitous chickpea spread or dip that haunts the menus of many health-oriented places and grocery stores, so popular with those on a health kick. But if this restaurant were just around my block, it would be a daily destination just for a few orders of the falafel, hummus or not.
You can start off with several appetizers, one of which is jarringly all-American: spicy buffalo wings. Guess cross-cultural eating is accepted even in some place that is so overtly ethnic. To that, add the other American favorites -- hamburger, cheeseburger, fries, and a few subs -- the cook serves, and you see why Howard students must drift in here in droves.
But for the serious food buff, the kitchen's succulent Moroccan and Middle-Eastern dishes are the main draw. What else to order besides the falafel? Why not a bowl of harrira soup, a traditional Moroccan vegetable mélange that is chockfull of legumes, onions, and seasonings and may be served to break the fast during Ramadan. Many recipes call for the addition of diced lamb or beef, though I can't swear that this version had any meat at all. For some reason, I expected the soup to have a certain chili bite, but Pyramid's version is mild enough for anyone's palate.
As for entrées, consider one of the Moroccan specialties: lamb tagine, a stew cooked in a clay pot, scoops of which are served with rice. What you get here are chunks of lamb shanks, cooked so long the meat falls readily off the bones and served with assorted chunks of stew vegetables, including carrots and potatoes. The result: a straightforward lamb stew by any name.
Check out, instead, the bastilla, which even the menu labels as a "must-try," and this may well be the restaurant's all-Moroccan fave. If you've never sampled a bastilla, that's the best starting place for your Pyramid experience, as the dish is really a glorious chicken pie topped with a phyllo crust dusted with cinnamon and confectioner's sugar. This is probably one of Morocco's most celebrated dishes.
Desserts are minimal, and include the ubiquitous baklava. But for an unusual treat, try this restaurant's version of halvah, or as named here, halawa -- one that Google's listings calls for Egyptians to use sugar water halawa for hair removal. Forget that! Most typically, halawa is made from tahini (ground sesame seeds) and sugar, though this version also contains pistachios. As dense as the richest fudge with a mysterious nutty undertone, Pyramid's halawa is divine and totally addictive! Take home lots; you'll wish you had some for that midnight snack.
Copyright (c) 2007 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Alexandra Greeley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §107.
Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.
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