Practically Exotic

Mamnoon unobtrusively lives a double life.

The walk-up window at Mamnoon is located right next to the double-doored main entry, but it would be better off in the alley around back. Set unobtrusively within Mamnoon’s slick, high-concept dining room, the new Capitol Hill restaurant’s low-priced lunch counter feels clandestine.

Mamnoon’s concept, according to the menu, is “a modern union of Middle Eastern cuisines.” Influences span from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, Southern Europe to Northern Africa. For those who eat out sans expense account, lunch is typically an efficient pit stop, a necessary, nourishing retreat from office drudge. Lunch at Mamnoon provides the fundamentals—and goes one step further.

At most counter-service spots, falafel is treated as fast food, wrapped in a store-bought pita and slathered with store-bought sauce, served with iceberg lettuce and yesterday’s tomatoes—a disappointment that’ll set you back around $7. Mamnoon elevates falafel: Their patties are discs, allowing for a crunchier, more cooked-through consistency than a ball. They’re coated in homemade cucumber-yogurt sauce and set alongside fresh mint and house-made pickles, wrapped in a pita that was baked a few minutes ago. It costs $5. There’s your reason to eat at Mamnoon.

(The walk-up window was closed at the time of my visit. I ordered at the counter inside and sat at a table, eating my paper-wrapped to-go items on the premises, a convenience Mamnoon will continue.)

Really, the pita alone is worth a visit. A massive, propane-powered oven is hidden inside a giant steel box at the front of the restaurant. Next to it, a guy kneads dough, feeds it through a thinning machine, then uses a paddle to place it deep inside the oven. What comes out is elastic and crisp—simultaneously humble and exceptional.

Mamnoon offers a few other pita-wrapped sandwiches for lunch, as well as variety of mana’eesh, a sort of flatbread pizza on oven-baked bread topped with stuff like herby za’atar or salty cheese and heated on a Mongolian grill-sized griddle, also at the front of the restaurant. Most of these are a bargain at $7. They’re not too big and not too small, platonic-ideal lunch items.

Mamnoon’s other face is equally appealing. Where lunch is forthright and reliable, dinner is exotic and elaborate. On a recent Tuesday, tables were occupied by suited men in expensive eyeglasses, women wearing huge scarves, a young couple in matching sailor-striped sweaters. It looked like a gathering of architects, web designers and their savvy parents. The bar was open—but had no stools.

Observing an alcohol-free month, I asked for a “mocktail” (a word I’d rather not say out loud) and was brought one of the most delicious things I’ve ever drunk: A bright-pink concoction served in a martini glass, described by the server as three types of citrus and a dash of lavender syrup.

A basket of pita bread was again as un-improvable as a work of nature. This time it came with herbed olive oil for dipping. Apps were an unremarkable grated beet dish and a sweet-savory mix of ground lamb, roasted eggplant and pomegranate seeds, every morsel of which my friend and I mopped with pita. Then we asked for more pita.

The main course was a whole, roasted sea bass served heavily spiced over sweetened cabbage. Picking flesh from tiny bones, I was transported to the restaurant in Tiberias next to the Sea of Galilee where I ate roasted tilapia on an Israeli exchange program 20 years ago. We declined dessert and were instead served tiny glass vessels of warm orange flower water—a simple, elegant gesture. The perfume of orange flower water was also transportive, albeit to some fantasy midnight Kasbah that I’ll probably never visit.

Photo by Nate Watters


1508 Melrose Ave.