There’s a temperature check at the door, involving a fancy device that requires looking into a mirror. (Don’t worry, your image isn’t recorded.) Tables are set with hand sanitizer, and utensils aren’t doled out until you’re seated, and then in thick cloth bundles secured with twine and a verse from Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet and mystic. “When you lose all sense of self,” read my tag, “the bonds of a thousand chains will vanish.” When Georgia initially lifted restrictions on dining in April, Mesghali was among the 120 Georgia restaurateurs who pledged not to open right away.
Curious thing: More tables are occupied than you might expect, especially for early in the week and in Phase 2 in the District. As is made clear when you scan the dining room, however, most of the figures aren’t breathing. Mannequins — as trendy as drive-ins and pool rentals during the pandemic — give new meaning to the phrase plastic people. “Men” dressed in black shirts and fezzes and “women” draped in saris take up half the space, blending in enough with beating hearts that you eventually forget how few occupants are paying customers.
But first, the expected jokes. “If one of them moves,” whispers a companion, “you’re on your own.”
Little niceties follow. Your choice of still or sparkling water is free, and eyes light up when warm taftoun (flatbread) and a little garden of herbs and radishes land on the table. “Sabzi,” a server introduces the fillip, which includes feta cheese and walnuts (a combination that also shows up in takeout orders). The server suggests making little sandwiches, or eating the nibbles with your meal. Cocktails are swapped, affording those in the same bubble at home the chance to debate the merits of say, the Sharbat and the Black Rose. The former is made with gin, rose water and citrus. The latter features mezcal, lemon bitters and barberry, the fruit that gives the drink its dusty pink color and sweet-tart finish.
Born in Isfahan, Iran, Mesghali relocated to Los Angeles in 1977, where he left school after the 10th grade to work in restaurant kitchens. In 1995, the chef moved to Atlanta to recover from an addiction to alcohol and drugs, and to return to the craft he dreamed about pursuing since he was a teenager. His Washington restaurant, scheduled to open in March, eventually greeted customers in August. “Okay, this is the way the world is right now,” the chef says. “How can we make it work?”
Success springs from kashk badenjoon. It’s a fabulous mush of fried eggplant that’s bright with mint, sweet with fried onions and stippled with cream of whey. If there were a pantheon of comfort foods from around the world, kashk badenjoon would be a shoo-in. Many of the other appetizers will look familiar to aficionados of Middle Eastern restaurants. But few of them approach the finesse on display at Rumi’s Kitchen. It will be hard to go back to regular stuffed grape