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Bacchus Restaurant, 1827 Jefferson Place, N.W., (202) 785-0734 The D.C. dining scene has recently become inundated with the Middle Eastern tapas-sized snacks known as meze. But Bacchus Restaurant, in its third decade of business, was feeding Washingtonians meze long before it became stylish. Tucked away on a side street below Dupont Circle, Bacchus is the stark opposite of trendy. Indeed, the near-empty dining room can make dinner a self-conscious experience. But don’t let the lack of buzz fool you. Bacchus endures as the gold standard for Lebanese cuisine in Washington, and meze fans are likely to find selections on its extensive menu that they have never tasted before. At Bacchus, the best things seem to come in small packages — savory mouthfuls of rice and beef wrapped in supple grape leaves, for instance; succulent cheese bites oozing from crisp filo shells; fragrant morsels of richly spiced falafel. With more than 50 tantalizing appetizers, don’t be surprised — or upset — if you never make it to the main course. Actually, we recommend filling up on a variety of small plates that tend to be more enticing than entrees. At roughly $6 each, five or six appetizers make a comfortable (and inexpensive) meal for two. Meze offerings range from familiar hummus and yogurt dips to intriguing plates of vegetables, sausages, and fish. Eggplant is the star ingredient of many of Bacchus’ vegetarian dishes. Playing endless riffs on the versatile vegetable, the kitchen serves it puréed, fried, stuffed, and baked. In m’saka’a, eggplant is first baked until tender and then sauteed with garlic, onions, green peppers, tomatoes, chickpeas, and spices. Served cold, the dish is at once savory and refreshing. Meanwhile, meat eaters will enjoy feasting on an array of beef and lamb concoctions. Kibbeh, ground meat mixed with wheat, forms the backbone of many dishes. Eaten raw, kibbeh is considered an aphrodisiac, but it is perhaps tastiest as a shell stuffed with meat and pine nuts and then deep fried. The Bacchus version arrives steaming, topped with tangy, sweet onion relish. Another delectable meat plate is the lamb shawerma — strips of grilled lamb and spicy red onions served with cool tahini dressing and grilled pita. The members of Bacchus’ attentive waitstaff eagerly help diners navigate the restaurant’s lengthy, and somewhat overwhelming, menu. On one visit, our waiter, Omar, urged us to try the fried smelt — a golden heap of crisp, salty morsels we speedily devoured, regretful only that we were not savoring them with a bottle of white wine and a view of the sea, as fried smelt were surely meant to be enjoyed. Still, a few of Bacchus’ meze selections do fall short. The stir-fried squid is a snooze. And hummus, though lush and creamy with just the right zip of lemon, comes accompanied by dry, flavorless pita — nothing like the warm pillowy breads offered by some other Middle Eastern restaurants in town. Bacchus’ main course entrees ($14 to $17) tend toward traditional grilled meats. Best among them: a robust shish kebab. Delicately flavored monkfish in the samak mechwi fares less well, emerging dry and overcooked. Indeed, only a few main course dishes successfully compete with Bacchus’ meze offerings. One standout is the fatte bel djaj — moist white chicken and fried pita chips swimming in buttery yogurt sauce. At lunch, Bacchus turns out one of the best omelettes in town — light, fluffy, and generously stuffed with tomatoes, onions, and feta cheese. Accompanied by a refreshing cucumber and tomato salad, the omelette ($8.75) is a simple, satisfying meal on its own. Unfortunately, Bacchus’ wine list does not play in the same league as its kitchen. A restaurant bold enough to name itself after the god of wine owes diners more inspired and varied selections. At least the wine list is moderately priced, with most bottles less than $30. But why is it that Bacchus’ Bethesda branch offers twice as many wines, including exciting alternatives from Oregon, Australia, and Chile? Another letdown is a lackluster baklava, which skimps on the nut filling. For the most satisfying experience at Bacchus, stick with meze. Bacchus may not be the most sophisticated restaurant serving meze these days, but it still deserves its reputation as one of the most distinguished. — Vanessa Blum is a reporter at Legal Times and Phillip Dubé is an attorney at D.C.’s Covington & Burling.

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