Restaurant Week earlier this year got us a chance to get to Me Jana, a lovely Lebanese place in Arlington. I waxed poetically about that already, and I have no reason to think it has gotten any worse. HOWEVER, it is pricey – that’s why we went during Restaurant Week. That is the whole point. When dealing with the large net of Middle Eastern-North African cooking (and I am certainly not trying to paint with a broad brush – or maybe I am, being such an ugly American and all). However, besides that, this side of Dearborn, I have not found cuisine in that range that I found delightful without thinking about Restaurant Week or Groupon or whatever.
So it was with great anticipation I wandered into Chez Manelle, a Tunisian joint almost literally across the street from Me Jana in the Court House area of Arlington. Tyler Cowen, who for an economist is a darn good restaurant critic, raved about it – and he is usually not wrong on these sorts of things. (indeed more of an authority than in other places). If the goal is atmosphere, Chez Manelle does not have it – and that is a sincere compliment. When we went around 6, it had barely started to fill up (and it’s a pretty small place) and the place definitely had the “ethnic hole” sort of look that portends a treasure. The wait staff was friendly and pretty patient (although that was more on evidence of his talk with a more inquisitive couple next to us).
We started with three appetizers. First, a salad – which was good, although in a fairly standard way. The vegetable beef soup was wonderful – with a thick, rich broth with body, flavor and well done. But that was all just a setup for the Brika, which I almost mistyped as birka. The brika is this fried crispy phyllo stuffed with potatoes, tuna and egg and capers. I know, this does not sound good. Certainly with the tuna I was worried, but this was absolutely wonderful. The tuna did not seem overly canned tasting, the potato was good, the phyllo was crispy in a way almost evocative of dosa. But the real star of the show was the egg, a fried egg, so when the yolk is pierced, it gives the whole thing a crispy creaminess. The egg almost acts like a cheese that way.
The entree was much more standard. We got their Couscous Manelle, steamed couscous with vegetables, lamb and merguez sausages. This is less of a discovery than the Birka certainly – but the execution was very good. The couscous is the best that I’ve had – a nice soft texture that worked with the vegetables and sauce nicely. The lamb was cooked well, even IF LG had the best piece of it – and the Merguez sausages, while a little overworked, were spiced perfectly. All in all this was a complete success – definitely good enough to bring friends. With entree prices being 9 to 12 bucks, this was much more middle class in terms of tab. This is certainly a solid consolation prize to Me Jana. In fact, it doesn’t take a back seat – it’s just it’s own thing. There.