ala Brings Levantine Flavors to Dupont Circle
September 17, 2021 @ 2:00pm
Named after a Turkish saying that translates to “a blending of all the colors,” Dupont Circle’s Levantine restaurant ala manifests the idea both literally as well as figuratively — the colorful mix of food and drinks and the journey of the cultures and recipes represented, respectively. It’s a reflection of the blend that is the Levant region: Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and beyond.
That aesthetic translates to the decor as well. An attractive outdoor dining space features colorful cushions, plenty of greenery and a sleek indoor space perfect for decompressing and enjoying a leisurely meal.
Previously known as Ankara and focusing on Turkish cuisine, ala was introduced in March 2021 to showcase the commonalities and the uniqueness of Levantine cuisine.
Diners will find a hefty menu with a large variety of dishes built for sharing, substantive larger plates, dips, spreads, breads and salads; it’s an extensive menu that showcases the breadth and variety of the food from the region.
We started with a smattering of small dishes to share. The “Zaalouk” — a roasted eggplant spread laced with garlic and bearing a spicy kick from chili flakes — comes with Taboon, a Levantine brick oven bread to scoop up the dip. Aged beef sucuk, the popular Turkish sausage, is served with onion jam and is a perfect accompaniment to your chosen beverage. The Keci, goat cheese accompanied with roasted red peppers and walnuts, is a creamy and tangy snack with a variety of contrasting textures.
The dishes are deliciously simple and elegant, colorful and fresh. Jenay Deganay, beverage director and general manager says the team aims to bring the food and flavors of their childhood to the tables of their guests, with some creative flair.
“We do serve traditional Levantine items, but always in a unique form,” Deganay says. “We serve Lahm bi Ajin, but with roasted eggplant, which may not be the traditional way for a lot of people.”
Another favorite is the fried halloumi, where the salty cheese is enrobed in a crunchy layer of dukkah (walnut and pistachio spice mix) and pine honey, as well as the peach shrimp (grilled shrimp and peaches), which was light and very flavorful.
The menu is made even more interesting and informative with the helpful hints scattered around it — tidbits of information that give you a glimpse into the history of the Levant or notes about an ingredient or spice used. It served both as a conversation starter and as a way to understand and associate with the food and culture.
The toum ribs gyro, although in the snacks section of the menu, can easily be an entree in itself. Pulled short ribs are served on a lavash bread with onions, tomatoes and toum, a popular crushed garlic sauce. The meat melted in your mouth, and the accompaniments broke the richness. And they cleverly add a little freshness with the Bateekh salad: watermelon, cucumber, white Egyptian cheese, fennel and mint.
You can easily fill up on the small plates and snacks, as another great option. Personally this is my preferred route, and with the menu at ala spanning a range of classic dishes and inventive variations, it’s easy to try out a variety of items. The large plates seem equally enticing; choose from a selection of lamb chops, chicken thighs, or short ribs with varying accompaniments.
With regards to the bar, ala’s cocktail menu is carefully curated with wines from the likes of Georgia, Israel, Lebanon and Palestine. Cocktails also feature Levantine flavors — za’atar syrup, dates and more. I enjoyed the “Levant,” a vodka cocktail that is tart with the addition of sumac and pomegranate, as well as the “Zahrah,” with quince jam and orange blossom water. With so much to taste, happy hour beckons again soon. I also highly recommend the add-on option for drinks: $28 gets you a cocktail to begin, 2 glasses of wine (3oz pours) through dinner, and another cocktail to end.
“It comes from the flavors we use in our food,” Jenay Deganay says of the inspiration behind the drinks. “Urfa pepper for instance; I can’t imagine eating something without it. Whichever restaurant or deli you go to in Turkey or any other neighboring countries, you would find Urfa pepper (the name might change depending on the region but the main idea is the same) right next to the salt and pepper. Having this background almost forces you to use it with drinks as well. If I can’t imagine not having it on my table, I have to have a Urfa pepper & turmeric margarita on the menu.”
Finally, the service. One of the things I really appreciated about the staff at ala is their knowledge of the menu, explanation of ingredients I was unfamiliar with, and being enthusiastic about the flavors and dishes, all in a naturally comfortable and friendly way. The staff is a huge part of what makes the restaurant so lively and homey.
Ala is a great place for a large gathering with friends, a family dinner or happy hour. I especially appreciated that the happy hour offer (25% off) extends to the entire menu. It’s a wonderful way to try out new dishes and enjoy some old favorites.
The team has just converted part of the first floor space into ala coffee+more. A coffee shop for the neighborhood, ala coffee+more sells pastries and house made bakery items, such as za’atar crusted croissants and tahini walnut scones. The house made coffee includes drip, espresso, Turkish and pour over versions, with additions like ground cardamom, rosehip and dried lavender leaves. There is also a market with grab and go sandwiches, dips and spreads, Turkish coffee and tea, wine, beer and cocktail pouches.
“The chef, the owner and I are from the region, so we serve what we know the best,” Deganay states. “It would be really difficult to create what we create without knowing all the indigenous flavors of the region.”
ala is open for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 4-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m. – 12 a.m., and brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. – 3.30 p.m. Happy hour runs from 4-6 p.m. ala coffee+more is open 8 a.m. – 3 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. on weekends.
ala: 1320 19th St. NW, DC; ala-dc.com // @aladupontdc
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