When reviewing restaurants I have tried to avoid making definitive factual statements, because after all my review is just my opinion. However, with Chez Manelle I can say as fact that it is unquestionably the best Tunisian restaurant in the DC area. Sadly it’s not because of its great food, but because it is the ONLY Tunisian restaurant in the area. Located in Clarendon near the courthouse metro, the restaurant is ideally located, yet when we arrived at 8:00 the only people in the restaurant were the 4-5 waiters standing around watching TV. That should have been our first hint, but we decided to go ahead and order several appetizers and a couple of main entrees.
Once our first appetizer arrived we began to think we might have found a gem. We started with the Mechouia, which is a grilled salad with egg, olives and tuna on top. The combination of the grilled salad and veggies, along with the toppings was a perfect combination and got our mouth's watering for the next dishes to arrive. If only we had stopped there. The following appetizers went from boring to greasy and bland. We decided since it was a Middle Eastern restaurant that we should at least try their hummus. If this was homemade, they need a new recipe. It was bland and a bit stiff. The only thing that made it passable was the Mlawi bread that we ordered and devoured with the hummus. The Mlawi bread is very similar to Roti that you can find at a Malaysian or Indian restaurant. Next up was the Brika which is phyllo dough stuffed with tuna, potato, capers, and eggs, then dropped in a deep fryer till done. I am not sure if my description sounded good, but it was not meant to. The Brika was both tasteless (which is hard to understand with all those fillings) and dripped of oil (see picture below).
The two entrees continued the theme of exciting on paper, but boring in reality. Couscous with lamb had little to no flavor at all. The veggies grilled on top had no seasoning, the lamb was bland, and the couscous tasted like it was poured right out of a box with no flavor added. Yet it was the Kaftaji that truly disappointed, not because it was worse than the couscous, but because the description looked so good. The Kaftaji was described as fried potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, eggs, onions and spices all mixed together with sausage on top. How could that possibly be bad? For starters, the “fried potatoes” were nothing more than undercooked french fries. The sausage was once again bland. The rest of the mix was pretty good (considering all the different ingredients that were in it), but once again lacked any real seasoning.
To try to forget the food I ended on a Tunisian mint tea which really was excellent. However, it was not good enough to make me forget how sub-par most of the food was. It was not that anything was really bad, it was just that most of the food underwhelmed and left you wanting more flavor. I love ethnic restaurants and believe most people would agree that when we veer away from standard American food, we are usually craving different flavors and spices. Sadly, at Chez Manelle you do not get that. I would not recommend Chez Manelle for a good meal, but if it is a nice night out, I would recommend heading over there to smoke a hookah and enjoy a Turkish mint tea. Just don't be tempted by the descriptions of their menu items....
Chez Manelle is located at 2313 North Wilson Boulevard Arlington, VA