Mmmediterranean-style brunch at Kapnos

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DC’s seemingly insatiable appetite for brunch has led to a glut of restaurants opening at 11 to serve overpriced eggs or just straight up lunch fare (sorry Taan, ramen is LUNCH) along with even more obnoxiously priced sugary ‘breakfast cocktails’. Occasionally, the stars align and you get to enjoy the best of it: an inventive twist on comforting brunch classics at a great spot with no wait because it’s better known for dinner.

Enter Kapnos. We were already fans when we noticed that it was open for brunch one weekend and decided to stop in. The good-sized menu includes small and large sweet and savory plates, from Greek spreads to omelets, waffles, phyllo pies, and panini.

Start with an actually tasty mimosa – lemongrass pineapple is a showstopper but I may have to try pomegranate cardamom next time – or a boozy herb-infused kegged lemonade.

On the sweet side, baklava french toast and Greek coffee waffles are delicious. The french toast is fluffy and moist, topped with perfumey candied chestnuts, pears, and oranges. It’s homey and satisfying yet sophisticated.

Baklava french toast

Baklava french toast

There’s nothing subtle about the coffee waffle. Intense coffee and dark chocolate flavors (there are fine Greek-style coffee grounds in the batter) aren’t dulled by cinnamon butter or whipped cream, both barely sweetened. Chunks of bittersweet chocolate on top remind you that this waffle is for grown ups. We’ve shared an order for the table on two visits now and find it to be the perfect appetizer, mid-meal bite, and dessert.

Greek coffee waffles

Greek coffee waffles

The phyllo pies, both vegetarian, are a great counterpoint to dessert-for-breakfast. They’re small enough to eat as an entree with room for something else to share, or vice versa if you want a few bites of savory to go with your french toast. Both the potato garlic pie with red pepper almond puree and spanakopita with spinach, leeks, and feta are flaky and flavorful.

Potato phyllo pie

Potato phyllo pie with egg

The omelet with mushrooms, spinach, and manouri cheese is solid but unremarkable – next time I’ll try scrambled eggs with zucchini, tomato, and yogurt. Similarly, pressed toast with apples and truffle honey is no more exciting than it sounds. Finally, for those who insist on lunch at brunch, there’s an orzo pasta bake with spinach, feta and leeks. Just make sure you also get a bite or two of someone’s waffles. And an extra mimosa.

2201 14th St NW
(202) 234-5000

* We’ve been able to drop in for brunch so far, but this could change once the secret gets out. *

All Bar, No Bite at Barcelona

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[Photo: ]

[Photo: Barcelona]

Barcelona on 14th Street has gotten lots of buzz for its massive, gorgeous space, extensive wine selection including many by the glass, and a stylish yet cozy outdoor fire pit complete with cocktail cart and blankets. Especially with this winter’s weather, what’s not to love about snuggling under the covers and downing potent beverages while still technically socializing?

The food, unfortunately. Not that there aren’t plenty of options for vegetarians. It’s just that pretty much everything on Barcelona’s menu is done better somewhere else.

Let’s start with the one dish that we actually did like: humble spinach-chickpea cazuela. This stew was cuminy, comforting, and about as filling as tapas gets.

Spinach-chickpea cazuela

Spinach-chickpea cazuela

A plate of mushrooms and herbed goat cheese with balsamic reduction wasn’t bad, but why would you ever choose these over Bar Pilar’s beautiful buttery mixed mushroom plate?

Mushrooms

Mushrooms

Spicy eggplant caponata was cloyingly sweet with no trace of spice. It remained largely untouched despite the fact that we were hungry.

Caponata

Caponata

Whipped sheep‘s cheese with pistachios and smoked paprika sounds a lot more exciting than the bland spread with overly charred bread presented to us. Skip and collect the flavorful whipped feta at Kapnos when you pass Florida Ave.

Et tu, patatas bravas? This is the one dish that any self-respecting tapas bar should nail. I mean, it’s fried potatoes. Any semblance of crispiness in the potatoes and flavor in the salsa brava was buried under piles of mayo. Once again, get thee to Bar Pilar for their (actually) crispy roasted potatoes with malt aioli.

Patatas bravas

Patatas bravas

The lure of Barcelona’s decor and bar will bring us back, but only after we’ve filled our bellies at Pilar, Estadio, Kapnos, Etto, et cetera.

1622 14th St NW
(202) 588-5500

Can we pleeeeease stay for dinner at Casa Luca?

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After Fiola‘s glowing success, the Trabocchi family aimed to create a less formal dining experience with their second DC restaurant, named after their son Luca. A side effect of the share-friendly menu, which features flatbreads, cheeses, and small bites, is that vegetarians have more options right off the bat. Also, unlike Fiola, at least two of the changing pasta selections are usually meat-free (this week there are three!). Although Fiola will prepare vegetarian pastas and risottos on request, it’s nice when a chef puts effort into creating these items for the regular menu.

We walked in on a quiet Sunday and started with a couple of glasses of wine on tap (cups, rather – no fancy glassware here) and appetizers. Bruschetta topped with a sweet and savory caponata of golden raisins, pine nuts and red peppers was served with fresh pesto. It was simple, well-prepared, and taste bud-awakening:

Bruschetta

Bruschetta

I’m a sucker for Fiola salads and was glad to find that Casa Luca’s have the same magic. Candy-sweet grapes, grapefruit, hazelnuts, and crunchy slices of cucumber were served atop perfectly dressed baby greens.

Salad

Salad

Butternut squash agnolotti with brown butter was another example of How Things Should Be. Nothing crazy, just the right flavors and textures in the right mix. The filling was just sweet enough to be balanced by salt, herbs, cheese, and slivered artichokes in the sauce. All the other squash and brown butter wannabes should take note.

Butternut squash ravioli

Outstanding butternut squash pasta

Ravioli San Leo with ricotta, greens, lemon, and almonds was also well done – we especially loved the lemon sauce – but the herb mixture included something medicinal which overwhelmed the delicate citrus and ricotta combination.

Ravioli San Leo

Ravioli San Leo

Dessert was the ultimate in simple perfection. At first glance our hazelnut coffee cake with caramel gelato and vin cotto didn’t look particularly exciting:

Hazelnut coffee cake

Hazelnut coffee cake

One bite of warm cake with melting gelato and that fantastic wine reduction and we were racing each other while trying to savor each mouthful. Tart, syrupy vin cotto might be my new favorite sauce – imagine if port and caramel got jiggy with each other.

A number of Italian restaurants around town could take lessons from Fabio Trabocchi’s focus on quality ingredients and no-fuss, yet sophisticated, compositions. And while nothing beats Fiola’s elegance for a special occasion, Casa Luca’s lower prices, quieter atmosphere, and bigger vegetarian menu make it perfect for a spontaneous night out. If this is what it means to stay at Luca’s house for dinner, he must be one popular kid.

1099 New York Ave NW
(202) 628-1099

Mandalay’s little sib has big aspirations in Shaw

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The owners of Silver Spring’s Mandalay opened another restaurant in Shaw a couple of months ago, with little fanfare. Chef Aung, who left his mother and brother’s side to start the new restaurant, may have started quietly but has big ideas. Inspired by friends and family with varying dietary restrictions and preferences, he decided that every day’s 7-course fixed menu would be specialized according to the needs of his diners. Accordingly, patrons reserve their spot 24 hours in advance and state their preferences (vegan, no nuts, I hate cilantro, etc). Aung uses these to draw up the menu the night before, goes shopping at 4 am, and prepares a test run of every item in the morning with his team. Because he can’t take advantage of wholesale ingredients, dinner is set at $70.

We checked out a special vegetarian night (discounted at $50) early last month. Aung and his staff were welcoming and solicitous, explaining the concept and walking us through each dish. We started with crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside bean fritters:

Bean fritters

Bean fritters

The patties were made of mung and red bean puree along with whole black beans and black-eyed peas. The result was light and delicious. Even if you’re not a huge fan of spice, be sure to try them with a bit of smoked chili with garlic and ginger (available on request).

The next course, ginger salad, was just about perfect as well. Intensely flavored and featuring a mix of exciting textures, Burmese salads are often a highlight of the meal. Here, ginger salad was fresh, spicy, and sour, with plenty of crunch from peanuts, sesame seeds, and chip-like fried garlic.

Ginger salad

Ginger salad

Soup, featuring chunks of winter squash in a thin broth got mixed reviews. Half of us found it bland while the other half appreciated its simplicity.

Eggplant, which is smoked, chilled, and tossed with lime, sesame, shallots, and ginger in one of my favorite Burmese salads, was disappointing here. Steamed and presented alongside okra (usually also a favorite), this dish was unanimously deemed both bland and oily.

Eggplant

Eggplant

Thankfully, entrees put us back on the right track. Soft chunks of pumpkin, carrots, and peppers in a delicate creamy coconut sauce made for a pleasant departure from the usual fiery Thai version of this curry. Noodles with fried tofu, peanuts, and crispy tofu skins stood out with just the right amount of turmeric and South Asian spices.

Curry and noodles

Curry and noodles

Dessert, a vegan concoction of sweet potatoes in banana coconut sauce, erred on the side of baby food rather than comfort food. Too bad, considering that Mandalay’s semolina cake is a well-known area favorite.

All in all, we enjoyed our experience and most of the meal. We also agreed that while worth the discounted price, the standard $70 price tag would need to come with fewer misses.

The good news is that since opening, Chef Aung has decided to offer a la carte items – nothing over $10 – downstairs in the lounge, and is also “looking at ways to possibly lower the price” of the set menu. We’ll certainly be paying attention.

1501 9th St NW
(202) 644-8806
Reservations available at City Eats

Going the distance for Vedge

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Vedge gets me. Vedge gets you too; you just might not know it yet. Too bad we have to be in a long distance relationship. Philly’s not that far though, right?

Some things to know about our new beau: Vedge is delicious. Vedge’s cocktails are equally delicious. Vedge is inventive. Vedge is not out for all your money. Vedge is warm and friendly. Oh, and Vedge is vegan. We actually argued over this last point at the end of our meal, those refusing to believe murmuring things like “But the ice cream. The creamy sauces”.

We started with salted beets and a portobella carpaccio, from an appetizer selection including sweet potato pate with jerk cashews and ‘funky’ kimchi stew.

The beets were fresh and bright – a welcome departure from my usual roasted, dense preparation. Together with avocado and cucumber herb sauce, every bite had the right amount of salt, crunch, and cream.

Salted beet salad

Salted beets with avocado

Portobella carpaccio is one of those feats that makes dining out exciting. Sliced paper thin, with a delicately smoky flavor and little blobs of caper sauce and creamy truffle mustard, they resembled nothing like the usual earthy caps served in burgers or stuffed with cheese.

Portobello carapaccio

Portobella carpaccio: all air, no earth

Spicy grilled tofu was also inspired. While not quite spicy, the slathering of smoked miso along with gochujang, a fermented Korean chili paste, was a perfect twist on barbecue sauce.

Tofu

Tofu

Seitan was aggressively but appropriately seasoned as well, marinated until tender and chewy with za’atar and served over tahini cream and swiss chard. This was of the best seitan dishes I’ve tried.

Seitan

Seitan

Hearts of palm went surprisingly well with the buckwheat pancake they were wrapped in, but the real standouts here were the gorgeous saffron sauce and cake-like disk of tandoor cauliflower.

Hearts of palm

Hearts of palm

Eggplant braciole was the only dish that didn’t blow us away; the texture was mealy rather than silky and red peppers overwhelmed the other flavors.

Eggplant

Eggplant

We also ordered a couple of sides off of the ‘dirt list’, both very nice. Grilled kale was buttery and indulgent, and a winter stew with tomatoes and hazelnuts gave me a new appreciation for simmered (rather than roasted) parsnips.

Don’t leave Vedge without trying at least two desserts. We were very happy with our cheesecake and chocolate peanut butter extravaganza, but narrowing down was not easy. I actually woke up the other day wondering what a choice of sticky toffee pudding with smoked pecan ice cream would have been like.

Cheesecake was topped with a zippy mini celery and apple waldorf and served with celery gel (more appetizing than it sounds). Even better was the accompanying carrot cake ice cream over a sprinkle of crunchy walnut dirt. Vibrantly orange and intensely flavored, the ice cream reminded me of both a traditional spice cake and Indian carrot halwa.

Cheesecake

Cheesecake

Chocolate uber chunk was uber satisfying. Layers of pretzel and peanut, malt custard, chocolate, and some kind of peanut butter cream came with a super boozy stout ice cream and, just for kicks, another square of crunchy, chocolatey, peanut buttery goo. The birthday girl was rightly excited:

Chocolate uber chunk (with birthday girl!)

Chocolate uber chunk (with birthday girl Shruthi!)

Unlike many restaurants where the quality of the food isn’t necessarily matched by the drinks, our cocktails were also excellent. All four of us liked all four choices, particularly the floral Kyoto Sour and winter-themed Thackery Binx, which combined rum, figs, port, and dates without being at all syrupy.

Unsure of my friend’s plans, I had made reservations at Vedge for both Friday and Saturday night during the weekend of my visit. After our meal, a part of me regretted having cancelled Saturday’s reservation. You better believe I’m going back to Philadelphia soon to visit Vedge. I mean, Shruthi.

1221 Locust St, Philadelphia
215-320-7500

Digging the greens at Dirt Candy

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Dirt Candy Logo

New York’s Dirt Candy has been on my bucket list for quite some time.  But with a teeny tiny seating area and an apparently rabid customer base, getting a reservation here as a weekender is damn near impossible (last-minute cancellations announced by “Twitter Table Lotto” make it more accessible to locals). I made a reservation in August for a trip in October, leaving exactly two months of building anticipation for the meal.

The menu is vegetarian, with most, if not all, items available vegan. All of the appetizers and the entrees are named for a single vegetable, which either appears in several variations (cucumber soup with cucumber jelly) or stars in the show with some sidekicks (spinach served with grapefruit, pistachios, and smoked ricotta). Also, jalapeño hush puppies with maple butter. Just cuz.

Jalapeño hush puppies

Yummy homey hush puppies

Our second appetizer was more sophisticated, setting the tone for the rest of the meal. Composed of thin strips of potato salad, crispy Japanese yams, grilled chip-like sweet potatoes, along with julienned olives, bitter greens, and apples, this was the lightest, most delicate assemblage of tubers I’ve ever tasted.

Potato

If Mr. Potatohead had hair

We ordered all four entrees: beans, broccoli, parsnips, and corn. The first two were outstanding.

Beans consisted of tofu poached in coconut sitting on a raft of long beans in a little pond of saffron sauce. I’m not being dramatic; this is exactly how it looked. Crispy fried green beans – life rafts? passengers? – finished it off. Each component, including the tofu slab, was perfectly seasoned. This dish was beautiful, creative, and delicious.

Green beans
Bean dream boat

Broccoli came as a barely smoked hot dog wiener (whaaat?) with broccoli kraut, broccoli rabe, and a side of salted crispy kale. Served in an airy bun and topped with vinegar and zippy barbecue sauce, one bite led us to abandon any doubts (square bun included). I can’t remember the last time I ate something this tasty and just plain fun.

Green beans
Broc-wurst

We weren’t huge fans of parsnip (parsnip gnocchi with radishes):

Parsnips

Parsnip

or corn, which sounded tempting (grits, corn cream, tempura egg, huitlacoche corn fungus) but was also a bit bland.

Corn

Corn

Still, the pleasure we took in the appetizers and first two entrees was enough to keep enthusiasm high. Innovative, flavorful, and fine but not outrageously priced vegetarian dining like this just doesn’t exist in DC. The bad news is that you have to travel to Philadelphia or New York, but the good news is that Dirt Candy is moving into a bigger space late next year, so at least we out-of-towners will have a fighting chance of getting a table.

430 E. 9th St
NY, NY 10009
212.228.7732

Spoiled by comforts at Rose’s Luxury

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Its name sets the tone for your evening: luxurious, yes, but in a home-y way. Service at Rose’s Luxury near Eastern Market is warm and welcoming, and the menu balances inventiveness with comforting touches. Apparently everyone agrees, because weekends here are packed. With no reservations, the best way to plan your visit is to arrive a couple of hours before you’ll be hungry, put your name down, then settle in for some drinks at a nearby bar (or upstairs if you can get a seat). Planned right, a leisurely built-in cocktail hour just adds to the indulgent feel of the evening.

Following this formula, we found ourselves seated with a view of the kitchen last Saturday night. A loaf of complementary brioche with – butter? sour cream? Something in between? arrived on old-fashioned china sprinkled with my new favorite topping: crispy bits of golden brown potato skins. The bread itself was fluffy and chewy and the perfect holdover after drinks at Beuchert’s.

Brioche

Brioche

Items on the menu that are or can be made vegetarian are helpfully marked in green. After some discussion with our server, we chose dishes that were vegetarian to begin with – burnt romaine, caramelized cauliflower, fennel gnocchi, and strawberry pasta. Although the popular lychee salad can be made with vegetarian sausage, we were warned that it doesn’t live up to the original.

Crisp black and green romaine hearts were served with avocado, tangy cotija cheese, poblano for a kick, and a green goddess-type dressing. Who knew charred lettuce could be so good?

Burnt romaine

Burnt romaine

The only dish that was slightly disappointing was caramelized cauliflower. Although every nook and cranny was deep brown and crunchy, the overall effect with Greek yogurt and a hint of something sweet left us wishing for more flavor.

Caramelized cauliflower

Caramelized cauliflower

Fennel-stuffed gnocchi was a lot more like a ravioli than traditional potato dumplings. It was surprisingly light and fresh, with fennel flavor coming from the filling and snips of fennel greens in the lemon mint sauce. Some things shouldn’t be shared, and this gnocchi makes the list. Get your own.

Gnocchi

Gnocchi

Strawberry pasta was surprising as well – bouncy al dente spaghetti swathed in a sauce of strawberries, red onions, and olive oil, topped with ricotta. The effect was strikingly similar in look and taste to a tomato marinara, with just enough berry sweetness among comforting savory flavors to keep us interested.

Strawberry pasta

Strawberry pasta

Despite the packed house, both our service and our food were of impressively high quality. Our server’s attention made us (and all of his diners, we suspect) feel special. Every dish was executed beautifully, also clearly given special care in the kitchen. Speaking of the kitchen, our view provided us with even more incentive to come back: watching pasta swirl around in skillets of rich golden cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) sauce. Next time. Along with dessert!

717 8th St SE
(202) 580-8889

I left my Tartine in San Francisco

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[Photo: SFGate]

Amongst all the yummy food and drink I enjoyed on my trip to San Francisco in August, one meal stood out that I’ve been wanting to write about: dinner at Bar Tartine. Owned by the couple behind Tartine bakery (where the croissants really are as good as you’ve heard) and with a new chef on board, Bar Tartine serves Eastern European-influenced food with a California twist for a far more exciting meal than its name belies.

Spectacular croissant from Tartine Bakery

Spectacular croissant from Tartine Bakery. Morning bun was also awesome. You can’t go wrong here.

Okay, back to dinner. We started with chilled sour cherry soup with fennel, dill, and yogurt. It was a tart, bracing twist to the traditional comforting borscht. (Although the soup was gorgeous, my blurry photos weren’t.)

Potato flat bread was another surprise: a puffy fried crust resembling an Indian bhatura, topped with garlic, dill, and sour cream. It’s indulgent, and worth every calorie.

Potato flatbread

Potato flatbread

Steamed sunchoke custard with a side of sunflower greens alternated
earthy and pleasantly bitter flavors, the custard more starchy than creamy and the greens smugly fresh enough to be picked from some sunny Bay Area backyard.

Sunchoke custard

Sunchoke custard

Farmer’s cheese dumplings in broth was the only item that wasn’t quite perfect. The broth was excellent, more deeply flavored and complex than any I’ve tried. The problem was with the dumplings, which were too big and too dense to properly soak up the broth. The dish didn’t meld, but the components were still pretty tasty.

Cheese dumplings

Cheese dumplings

With successes and surprises at every turn, there was no excuse to skip dessert. Unfortunately, the menu that day just wasn’t doing it for us. Carob mousse? Rye porridge? Cucumber sorbet? We passed, but looking back from across the country, I’d say with a little regret that we should have taken the jump.

San Francisco is full of great restaurants with vegan and vegetarian food, from fine dining to streetside tacos. We’re dying to get back and then write more reviews, but in the mean time keep Bakery and Bar Tartine on your list.

Tartine Bakery
600 Guerrero St
(415) 487-2600

Bar Tartine
561 Valencia St
(415) 487-1600

You say Tortino, I say Torti…NO

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In a city awash with Italian restaurants, Tortino near Logan Circle scores a whopping 4 1/2 stars on Yelp, with rave reviews of perfect pasta and fantastic service at a reasonable price. Naturally, we were excited to visit.

The service is certainly friendly. Everyone from the hostess whose first words to us were ‘This is your first time? You’ll definitely be back!’ to our server to the guy who unclogged our salt shaker was solicitous and eager to help.

The menu offers a number of options for vegetarians: some salads, gnocchi with basil pesto, butternut squash ravioli, mozzarella ravioli, linguini with cherry tomatoes, and spinach pappardelle with mushrooms in cream sauce (minus the chicken).

Gnocchi with pesto

Gnocchi with pesto

Gnocchi served with cherry tomatoes and pine nuts was memorable in that it reminded me of lazy weeknights shopping in my freezer for pesto cubes and Trader Joe’s frozen gnocchi. Not bad, but not what I want to eat while wearing anything but pajamas.

Unfortunately, we fared even worse with butternut squash ravioli with brown butter and raisins, which even the most comfortable of pj’s wouldn’t make palatable.

Butternut squash ravioli

Butternut squash ravioli

While brown butter is a beautiful thing, it can’t overcome the epic battle that burnt garlic and raisins wage against each other over the taste buds. Bitter garlic infused the sauce and managed to clash with the sweet squash filling as well. Although we weren’t full, we cut our losses at this point and chose the check over dessert.

There were a couple of other unpleasant aspects of our visit that didn’t help. One side of the restaurant smelled like sewage and the air was damp, leading us to wonder if there’s a leakage or moisture control problem (or both). We had to send the first order of ravioli back after finding a stray piece of prosciutto in it. Still, this would all have been forgiven if at least one of our dishes was satisfying. But when we don’t bother to take home leftovers, we’re not coming back for more.

1228 11th St NW
(202) 312-5570

Middle Eastern comfort food at Mama Ayesha’s

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[Photo: Mama Ayesha's]

Mama Ayesha’s serves Middle Eastern food in a quiet spot on Calvert between Adams Morgan and Woodley Park. Ignore the frumpy exterior; once inside you’re surrounded by deep red walls, glowing lights, and an ornate decor.

The long list of appetizers includes the staples – hummus, baba ghanouj, tabbouleh, and spinach pie, along with several salads and fried vegetable dishes. Appetizers are usually where vegetarians win with Middle Eastern food. These all got neglected on our visit, though, because mujadarrah (lentils and rice topped with fried onions) is one of my favorites and became our entree-as-appetizer.

Mujadarrah

Mujadarrah

Although the fried onions were divine, the rest of the dish was disappointing. It’s simple, yes, but should have had deeper flavor. We’ll be going back to appetizers-as-appetizers for better luck next time.

Still, it was well worth it to order from the main course menu because a number of vegetarian items piqued our interest, including makloobah, a dish of cauliflower, rice, pine nuts, and almonds, and bamia bil lahmeh, a stew of okra and tomatoes. We chose the mixed stuffed plate of dolma, cabbage, and squash so we could sample a few items. The dolma were moist and flavorful and the cabbage rolls were tender and well-accompanied by tangy tomato sauce. The squash was forgettable though – its high surface to filling ratio  made it bland.

Stuffed vegetable platter

Stuffed vegetable platter

For dessert, classic baklava didn’t disappoint. It was dense while not dry, with the right amount of gooey thickened honey in the filling.

Baklava

Baklava

Overall the entree prices are a little steep (rice and lentils should not be $14), but vegetarian versions are at least priced lower than their meaty counterparts. Because of its large number of vegetarian options, unique ambiance, and pleasant service, Mama Ayesha’s deserves a try. Order right and it might even earn an occasional spot in your rotation.

1967 Calvert St NW
(202) 232-5431

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