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Tapas, Turkish-Style, at Capitol Hill’s Meyhané

Editor’s note: This is the first in what will be an ongoing series of reviews of restaurants in and around Capitol Hill.

In Turkey, meyhanés play much the same role as tapas bars in Spain or taverns in the United States — a casual place to gather for drinks, socializing and a simple meal. Capitol Hill’s own Meyhané opened nearly a year ago in the space formerly occupied by the Anatolia Turkish Café.[IMGCAP(1)]

The focus at this no-frills spot is wine and Turkish meze, or tapas. Reasonable prices make Meyhané an attractive option for diners on a budget. In fact, much of the restaurant’s appeal lies in its daily wine happy hour — all bottles are half price from 5 to 7 p.m. weekdays and noon-7 p.m. on weekends. And with wine prices regularly ranging from $20 to $39, patrons will pay close to retail prices during happy hour.

The restaurant attracts a neighborhood crowd, both young and old, with its casual style. Clusters of pink grape lights twinkle over the doorway, luring passersby into the open, modestly decorated dining room. Musical instruments hang from the walls, and small candles flicker on bare wood tables. On nice nights, the restaurant’s windows open onto the street, making the best seats in the house at the front of the dining room.

A good time to visit is around 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights when a belly dancer performs for diners.

While the relaxed atmosphere and wine prices may prove enticing, the cooking sometimes falls short.

The food isn’t bold or sophisticated, but it’s on par with what you might expect at a casual tavern where the focus may not always be what’s on the plate.

The menu is divided into cold and hot tapas, along with a handful of entrées. The kitchen is often out of things, so it’s wise to ask a server before setting your heart on any one item.

The best way to navigate the menu is to select a few dishes per person from the cold and hot offerings to share. Or opt for one of the large combo platters, which takes the guesswork out of ordering.

The warm pita bread served with the meal can stand in for utensils for many of the cold mezes, the best of which may be a Turkish version of baba ganouj. The puréed eggplant spread is pleasingly smoky. Another stand-out among the cold tapas is the shak shuka, a blend of cubed eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, green peppers and yogurt, which has a more substantial texture and deeper flavor than many of the other choices.

Onions and herbs lend the hand-molded lentil balls a nice spice, and antep, a Turkish-style salsa, is reminiscent of gazpacho with a mild amount of heat.

Jajik, a yogurt, cucumber and garlic dip, is delivered to the table in a confusingly large serving but can be used to complement many of the other meze.

On the hot tapas menu, grilled lamb meatballs are juicy and tender, but lamb shish kebabs turn up chewy and bland. Sujuk, spicy Turkish sausage, is sautéed in butter and olive oil, which renders it slightly greasy.

A tangy yogurt sauce saves the zucchini fritters, which are described as light and crunchy on the menu but arrive dense with filling and light on actual zucchini.

The pastirma cigar borek, dried beef and mozzarella rolled in a crisp wrapper and served with a tomato dipping sauce, is a satisfying combination that resembles the Turkish cousin of fried mozzarella sticks.

Many of the tapas could benefit from additional seasoning. The housemade hummus, for example, is greatly improved by a spritz of lemon, and a creamy yogurt and grated carrot meze needs more garlic.

From the entrée offerings, the house special wraps chicken thighs and mashed potatoes in whole red peppers, a dish that looks better than it tastes. While the chicken stays moist and flavorful in its pepper pouch, the potatoes are watery and the peppers soggy.

Other entrées include grilled lamb chops, baked vegetables and kebabs wrapped in pita.

For a sweet finish, the chocolate soufflé stands tall in its ramekin and gives way to a warm, gooey center. Paired with a demitasse of strong Turkish coffee, it’s even better.

The informal persona of the restaurant often carries over into the service, which is at once candid and gracious but spotty at other times. You won’t be doted on, but you can expect servers to be straightforward. For example, when asked about the only Turkish selection on the wine list, our waiter bluntly told us it was no good.

Meyhané delivers on its name’s promise to be an affable place to gather with friends. If only the kitchen could deliver more inspiring options to feed diners while they socialize.

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