Walk past the beer hall and hipster coffee shop, turn into a Blagden-esque alley, steer past the hipster shared work space and stop at a mighty, though slightly unassuming blue door (then take a selfie).
Enter Maydan (1346 Florida Ave., N.W.), the new and celebrated restaurant, and prepare to get lit (maydandc.com).
Before being led to your table, you’ll be led by a roaring fire. It starts the day at 950 degrees Fahrenheit, and then slowly cools to 650. At this balmy temperature, it takes about 45 seconds for raw dough to become a pita-style bread, tender and puffy, with the occasional pizza-crust blister, which will guide diners through their meals.
This is not your conventional (or convection) oven. This is Maydan’s famed hearth, a hearth that sits center in a gorgeously appointed two-story former warehouse space, over which everything is cooked, from cabbage to dripping slabs of lamb shoulder. It’s daring and hot.
To sit down at Maydan is to be lifted into a caravan traveling along ancient trade routes across the ancient Roman and Ottoman empires, encountering new lands, deep flavors and welcoming faces. Each visit here is a new journey, each bite marries far-flung locales, each sip brings together old and new.
Yet Maydan is also anti-fusion, a rallying cry against over-complicated, pretentious small plates. Dishes are simply, beautifully prepared, with liberal use of olive oil, plus touches of salt and pepper and not much more. Using this bread as a centerpiece means that diners themselves can take a similar journey across the world, just as owner Rose Previte and chefs Chris Morgan and Gerald Addison took themselves in order to open the restaurant.
“Maydan’s entire menu is influenced by our travels,” says Previte, her sleeves rolled up as she stands next to the roaring flame, a tattoo of a compass peeking out. “We cooked alongside people in their homes while we were crossing five different countries last summer. All of those people were strangers before they welcomed us in.”
While on the road, they realized what they were cooking and eating.
“This is the food of grandmothers,” Morgan says. “There was so much hospitality. It was mind-blowing.”
The intrepid culinary travelers went to Morocco, Lebanon, Georgia and beyond, with plans to travel again this summer. To understand it all, Morgan says he read every morning. “I’m a big nerd when it comes to history and culture.”
And at every turn, in every country, they saw this grand fire over which meals were prepared. Much like a Maydan, translated as “town square,” a central fire for cooking brings people together. It’s used all over the Asian continent (perhaps the one Americans are most familiar with is the Indian tandoor).
Previte, however, wanted to take it a step farther. She was passionate about the live-fire concept, right in the very center of the restaurant. It would need to be a bespoke fire, constructed just for the space itself.
They landed on the Georgian version of the open, wood-fired oven, called a tone. Every meal in Georgia was eaten beside one, with bread and meats cooked over this flame (though some today use gas instead).
Using this oven as a centerpiece, Previte says, “seemed the best style of oven to go with to represent the countries of inspiration.”
This hearth, though, is unique. Previte says it’s unlike anything else in the U.S. The bread ovens, mentioned earlier, are made of clay, built right on the spot. The open-flame hearth sits on Virginia stone, cut and placed specifically for this grill.
The steelwork was also fabricated in Virginia. This includes the roasting box for meat, as well as the fire box to hold the fuel, which is pure American oak to provide a subtle but classic flavor. Finally, the hood is enormous, to make sure that all smoke leaves the cooking area, since, after all, it’s mere feet from diners. Masons, engineers, architechts, designers — it really did take a village to make the idea come to fruition (and to pass food safety codes). So while the hearth concept might be ancient in nature, the parts were sourced locally.
On the menu, every hot item is cooked on the grill. Cold items are prepared in the back kitchen.
And then there’s the bar, though alcohol is not especially big in the part of the world where the restaurant draws inspiration.
Instead, Previte says, “the most interesting things about the cocktails are that the flavors and ingredients we use correlate exactly to the food.” Items like mint, fennel, rosewater, stonefruit, and dill, and other herbs and spices.
In a nod to the culture of the countries of origin, most cocktails can also be ordered without alcohol. And given the popularity of tea in the region, this beverage features strongly at the bar, and the restaurant is looking to start a separate tea program.
In Georgia, though, alcohol is consumed, and the country is famous for its wines. The bar features a list of Georgian vintages, as well as from other neighbors like Turkey and Armenia. It also serves a feisty Georgian grape brandy called chacha, as well as Arak, one of the few widely consumed spirits in the Middle East. Finally, there’s a plan on tap on to serve large-format drinks. Diners will be able to order not just bottles of wine for the table, but carafes of cocktails.
In the end, Previte echoes the un-fusion sentiment. The recipes, from fire-roasted seafood and vegetables to tender kebabs to creamy dips and spreads, come directly from simple dishes they encountered on their travels.
These dishes are based on centuries-old recipes, recipes that cross time and space, carry culture and history, and have landed right on Florida Avenue.