By Jacki Lyden
The Washington Post
August 13, 2000,
RESTAURANT REVIEW: Moby Dick House of Kabob: 1070 31ST ST. NW, Washington,
DC. 202-333-4400. Open: Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday
11 a.m. to 4 a.m., Saturday noon to 4 a.m. No credit cards. No reservations.
No smoking. Prices: appetizers 85 cents to $ 4.20, entrees $ 3.95 to $
11.45. Full meal with soft drink and tax $ 7 to $ 14. (Other locations
in Bethesda, Crystal City, Fairfax, Gaithersburg and McLean.)
"Call me Ishmael," I said to my friend Jahanshah, "and
I'll call you Queequeg." We had just entered one of my favorite holes-in-the-wall
in Washington, the Moby Dick House of Kabob. Why the name Moby Dick? Avast,
seafarer, I'll keep you in suspense for a moment on that one. Let's just
say that when an Iranian restaurateur started Washington's Moby Dick chain
in 1989, he was building on one of the legends of Tehran, not Herman Melville's
tale of the whale.
The Iranian exodus to America since the revolution of 1979 has resulted
in a wealth of Persian businesses in the D.C. area, and Moby Dick is one
of the many success stories. After all, catering to Persian tastes has
a market far beyond Iranians. All kinds of Middle Easterners -- often Israelis
and Turks -- turn up at Moby Dick, and there's an ample Western patronage
There are six Moby Dicks, from Gaithersburg to Fairfax, but there is
no place like the classic Georgetown joint, tucked just above the canal
on 31st Street. Its sign is garishly funky, its fluorescent lights could
make you think you were stuck in an old phone booth, and the place isn't
a great deal bigger than that. Crammed into Moby Dick are maybe three tables,
a dozen chairs and a tiny counter. Two or three guys stand behind the cash
register, taking orders and making lavash bread in the traditional way:
whomping a circle of dough onto the interior wall of a heated bread oven,
and then taking it out with a paddle. Weekends Moby Dick stays open till
4 in the morning, and everyone from surgeons to taxi drivers comes in for
a quick kebab, which can be eaten in -- often standing, or sitting by the
canal -- or taken home.
Jahanshah, the Iranian-born editor of an online English-language magazine
called the Iranian, has definite expertise in kebab matters. And even though
I hail from Wisconsin, I have been to countless kebab joints in Iran myself,
so I would say I am no slouch, either. "Kubideh or chenjeh?"
he asked. Ground sirloin or marinated tenderloin chunks? He ordered seer
torshi as an accompaniment, which I had never been offered. This little
dish is garlic buds marinated in vinegar, and the longer they are marinated,
the more delicious they become. Seer torshi is probably only asked for
by the cognoscenti -- meaning Iranians -- and I highly recommend it with
Kebabs in Iran are usually minced lamb or beef, with an egg on top of
the rice underneath them. I have been to Persian cooking classes at Bethesda's
Academie de Cuisine, where Najmieh Batmanglij, an Iranian chef who lives
in Georgetown, has made kebabs, and, believe me, shaping the ground stuff
around a skewer would try the patience of a saint. Yet kebabs are prepared
everywhere in Iran, for the simple reason that the complicated stews of
Persian cuisine are even more labor-intensive. That, and the fact that
the Iranian penchant for kebabs seems equal to the American desire for
burgers and fries.
The cooks at the Georgetown Moby Dick serve about 2,000 kebabs a week,
made each day at a central location in Crystal City. Prices range from
five bucks for ground sirloin to $ 8 or $ 10 for a kebab combination. Besides
the ground sirloin or chunks of tenderloin, one might also order a lamb
kebab (called barreh) -- made with halal lamb, by the way, which has been
butchered according to Muslim dietary laws -- or chicken (called joojeh)
and even, sometimes, fish. There are also souvlakis -- Greek-style open-faced
sandwiches -- and vegetarian dishes. But those are not authentically Persian.
For me, the thing that makes Moby Dick truly Persian -- besides the
fact that each dish is served with excellent rice -- is the array of side
dishes that can be ordered separately. Jahanshah ordered them for us: Sabzi
was a small plate of watercress, parsley, onion, radish and feta cheese;
translated literally, sabzi means greens, and a combination of greens and
cheese starts almost every Persian meal. Then there was a dish of yogurt
mixed with shallots; a shirazi salad of chopped tomato and onion; and kashk-o
bademjan, a mixture of ground sauteed eggplant, garlic, grilled onion and
boiled yogurt. This dish is one of my favorite Persian dips, though, sadly,
I must report that at Moby Dick it doesn't measure up to the other side
dishes. Perhaps it just doesn't lend itself to the exigencies of fast food;
either that, or it has been made blander for the American market. The lavash
tastes similarly Americanized: It has had a lot of white flour added to
it, and though it may puff up just like the bread does in Iran, mysteriously
adhering to the sides of the bread oven, it is doughy and floury, to my
Another truly Persian offering is the homemade or bottled doogh. Ah,
I love this stuff! A yogurt-and-seltzer drink, it is, to me, the perfect
complement to Persian food, healthy and tasty. My American friend Kyle
came with me another night, though, and she left her doogh alone. She is
an adventurous diner, but even she called doogh "an acquired taste."
One of the wonderful things about Moby Dick is that given the customers'
casual attire, you often have no idea what anyone's day job might be: chauffeur,
or the chauffeured. While waiting for my meal one night -- not more than
15 minutes -- I talked to a guy who sells cars, two doctors, a consultant
for the World Bank and a teacher.
Kebabs feed many different hungers. Iranian-born Maryam Jabari had just
done a 40-hour shift -- she's a resident at George Washington University
Hospital -- and still had on her green doctor's fatigues. And fatigue was
the right word for her. "It's comfort food," she said groggily.
"It's good, and it's fresh, and it's fast." Then she was gone.
The World Bank consultant, who didn't want to give his full name, comes
from a small town in northeastern Mexico. He said the food at Moby Dick
reminded him of asado de pollo, a Mexican chicken-and-rice dish, with "tortilla
bread, and there's even hot sauce. I've told my family the food is similar,
but they think I'm crazy."
The second doctor, Arora Sabodh, a GW vascular surgeon from India, explained,
"I saw a tiny hole in the wall with a line outside it, like something
out of the Soviet Union. I just got in line, because I knew it had to be
good. And it is."
Yes, Jahanshah did eventually tell me the story behind the restaurant's
name. In the shah's time, one of the biggest kebab joints in Tehran, right
near the American Embassy, was called Moby Dick, apparently because the
owner just really liked the book. So for Iranians, the name Moby Dick is
a little in-joke.
Then Jahanshah sprinkled some sumac, a powdered condiment kept in containers
on the table, over his kebab. "Nush-e jan!" he said. Good eating!.
Guest columnist Jacki Lyden is a host of National Public Radio's "Weekend
All Things Considered." The Post's new food critic, Tom Sietsema,
will debut in this space next week.