Somewhere in Washington, D.C. between a roomful of medicine ball-hugging gym-goers, a fancy coffee shop and a pizzeria, there's an alleyway. At the end of the alley, there's an arching wooden hobbit door.
Behind the door isn't the Shire, but a new colossus of food and decor called Maydan. Bronx-style graffiti mingles with carved Islamic geometric patterns, all amid a raucous two-story crowd of diners delving into Arab-rooted meze offerings. Radiating out from the middle of this hideaway is a gazebo-sized inferno of a grill with a copper dome. All of this is the handiwork of a brain trust composed of restaurateurs and chefs: Rose Previte, the owner; and Chris Morgan and Gerald Addison (both 29 years old), who split executive chef duties.
Chefs Chris Morgan and Gerald Addison.
Maydan, which means "a central place for gathering" in a number of languages, is a tightly stitched cluster of warmth and communality. It was conceived and designed over a three-week journey last summer through Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Georgia and Lebanon to discover those countries' foodways. Unsurprisingly, along the way, they ended up finding out much more about themselves and what they wanted in a restaurant than when they started.
"I was in Morocco during Ramadan and was invited to go to an iftar outside of town," Morgan says excitedly. "The family slaughtered a lamb for a tagine just for me. I was a little in culture shock, to be honest, but everyone was smiling and going out of their way to make me feel comfortable. Then they slaughtered another lamb—for a second iftar. It was unlike anything I've seen here."
That type of over-the-top hospitality has made its trip back to D.C. fully intact, evident in every detail and gesture of the restaurant and its staff, which has earned it nods of approval from the likes of both Michelle Obama and the James Beard Foundation.
As truehearted cooks, Addison and Morgan are excited to get to the bottom of each dish. "This food isn't ours. It's so personal. Every country, village and person does each one of these recipes differently," Addison says. "You can make baba ghanoush 10,000 different ways. I love when people tell us we're doing it wrong—I want to learn their way!"
As we discuss the provenance of dishes on the menu—which home kitchen they came from, the endless varieties of Lebanese garlic sauce toum—the enthusiasm for the cultures they're representing is obvious. Their travels in and out of the kitchen have made them humble and unusually amenable. "Dishes that you'd skip over in a regional cookbook, something like just beans with garlic, were amazing on our trip," Morgan says. "Moments like that drive us."
Back to that fire though. There was a wood-fired grill restaurant boom in the 1980s that swept the nation, but compared to Maydan's sizzler, those grills look like Easy-Bake Ovens. This is a literal blaze of glory that looks like it was built by whoever made GoT's Iron Throne. There are two tandoori ovens whose inner walls create an endless stream of fluffy, charred bread, one grill each for meat (an Aleppo kebab dusted with pistachio, a rib eye with blue fenugreek) and seafood (squid and shrimp drenched in chermoula sauce), and a towering cage in the center that holds burning logs. Smoky $100 lamb shoulders dangle from the bars above. The whole edifice is so big that the food looks almost miniature when placed within it. Several hearth-tanned cooks dance around the setup during service, stepping back occasionally to take a break from the massive heat. I could watch for hours. "We have no idea how hot it is—our infrared thermometer goes off the charts," Morgan says, his eyes going wide. "But let's put it this way: It's hard to put on weight."
From the fire, we watch as people lean into tables packed with an amazing variety of dishes, from kabocha squash with ras el hanout to Beiruti hummus. There is a stroboscopic flash effect of hands tearing bread and sated smiles all around indicating that the current mood is bliss.
Maydan is putting its best foot forward by creating excitement and love for something new. Coming together might have seemed trite and old-fashioned before. But now—especially in the capital—it seems like a mandate, a necessity. "The hearth just brought it all together," Morgan says while looking around with a smile. "People gather around us while we're cooking—it makes us feel just like we did on our travels."
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