[from July 1999 issue]

If the owners of Levante's have anything to do with it, Washingtonians will become as familiar with Eastern Mediterranean (and Turkish) foods as they are with McDonald's hamburgers. Except, of course, to date Levante's has only two local outlets (Bethesda and downtown), but both places seem to be consistently crowded and humming with activity.

Indeed, Levante's newish Dupont Circle location may be too small for its britches. What happens with the overflow in cold weather? Packed at late lunch--with every table filled inside, and most filled outside--Levante's looked like a mass feeding frenzy. Indoors, I requested of the host. He pointed to a few bar stools at the indoor counter/bar and led me outdoors to a solo table at the back of beyond.

First things first, and that includes getting the basket of bread, here a thick, flat, puffy, chewy creation baked fresh on the premises--and it lends itself to dunking in splashes of green-gold olive oil poured from each table's cruet. Usually divinely soft and warm, you may get a loaf that's not quite fresh, but just ask for a second piece. After all, this bread is simply wonderful, making many French and Italian baguettes taste like cardboard.

Then, pay attention to the menu, with this caveat: Most portions are rather generous, and chances are you are going to fill up quickly on the bread, loaf by loaf. Also remember that several of the dishes listed as sandwiches have heftier counterparts as entrees, so in some ways, you can get the best of both worlds. A little of this, a bit of that . . . and not over-eat.

By all means, start off with an appetizer order of their baba ghanouj--unlike competitors' attempts, this features roasted eggplant that has been pureed to the consistency of whipped cream or frothy, smooth yogurt, and you may even wonder what you are eating. It's best scooped up with strips of the puffy bread, maybe even with an added drizzle of olive oil. A second best bet for appetizers is the falafel with an almost smooth hummus. The falafel, five pieces to the order, are crunchy and spiced, but not really garlicky enough for my tastes. Also worthwhile are the Levante's "Cigars," thin, deep-fried and cheese-filled pastry tubes that are apparently one of the house specialties--give them a try.

Skip past the salads, unless you are dieting, because it seems that many of the dishes are served with an accompaniment of greens, as is the Adana Sandwich of grilled ground and seasoned lamb served on pita or Levante's flat bread. (There are two Adana entrees, too, both of seasoned ground and grilled lamb.) This comes with a side of ezmesalad, a mixture of chopped cucumbers and tomatoes, and is topped with a tomato mixture that looks like a mashed Tex-Mex salsa. Tucked into a pocket of the flat bread, the sandwich becomes a daunting challenge to finish.

For a change of pace, you can also order a so-called Turkish pizza, the Pide, which resembles a shallow boat made from dough and filled, not with people, but with your choice of "toppings," which could be meat, chicken, shrimp (small), cheese(s), or veggies. Unlike its Italian cousin, which seem to be all about melting cheese(s) and herbs, the Turkish version is much less gooey and in many ways, much more about the crust, and loads of it.

Bigger appetites merit bigger meals, such as the full-sized entrees of skewered lamb in many guises. Better yet, try veal or lamb chops instead, and add on an order or two of fried potatoes and skewered vegetables. And always, get more of the puffy flat bread.

Levante's also offers weekend brunch featuring a curious mix of East and West. You may crave something sweet, such as the banana walnut pancakes, but your companion could chow down a choice of eggs with Turkish sausage or bacon or assorted vegetables. Or how about an order of scrambled eggs with fine chopped lamb for an offbeat eye opener?

Levante's, 1320-19th St., NW; 293-3244. Hours: Sun.-Thu., 11am-; Fri. & Sat., 11am-midnight. Dinner entrees:, $12 to $20. Major credit cards accepted.

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