By BEN JAFFE
A friend and I decided to make our own walking food tour and try the same dessert from different restaurants, cafes and bakeries. We wanted to try something that was a little more unique than cupcakes, so we landed on baklava. I planned the tour and realized that we had the wonderful and unexpected benefit of the diverse D.C. food scene. While we expected that baklava at one place would be different from another, for a dish like baklava, which crosses cultures and geographic boundaries to the point that there are multiple accepted spellings, we got to try many different versions of the dessert.
All restaurants, cafes and bakeries below are immigrant-owned, founded by immigrants or feature well-known immigrant chefs. I have provided a map of my recommended walking path.
TIP: If you do this, or even a shortened version, I’d recommend not eating the full baklava. Baklava is reasonably filling and is quite the sugary dessert. Take a couple of bites and save the rest for a treat.
La Jolie Bleue
This Mediterranean café in Georgetown is easy to miss. The interior, however, is another story. Inside, behind the counter containing pastries and sandwiches, the white tile wall contains light blue window frames holding pictures of desserts, cascading plants and chalk-written menu items. Fabulous coffees and marzipan are accompanied by some less usual items including soufflé, kirsch and salep. The owners, a lovely couple from Algeria, proudly informed me that most items they made in-house, include their almond baklawa.
The day we went, two baklawas were available, pistachio and almond. Both were delicate and full of flavor, but also crisp with many layers of phyllo dough. The group was nearly split with which one we preferred, but my preference leaned toward the flavorful almond baklawa.
A short uphill walk took us to Janti Café, immediately recognizable from blue flowers climbing the outside wall. Through the entrance lies a cozy space with the usual café fair, though with some bonuses of Turkish coffee and Turkish bagels. The bagels would alone warrant a return trip to Janti, but the real treat lies upstairs at the Turkish market, where you can find traditional Turkish ingredients.
We brought a plate full of pistachio baklava to the outdoor seating area and began to dig in. The pistachio flavor came through well, strongly complemented by the syrup and a wonderfully crisp exterior. This was my second time having the baklava from Janti and, if possible, it was even better than the first time.
The longer walk from Janti to our next stop, Byblos, in Cleveland Park was an excellent way to burn off some calories and explore some neighborhoods as we took the scenic route through Dumbarton Oaks Park and Woodley Park. Beyond the door, underneath a loud blue-and-white-striped awning, Byblos carries a feeling of your usual neighborhood deli and diner with white marble tables, tile floor and large menus above the counter proclaiming Greek shawarma, falafel, gyros and much more.
As a group, we did our best to eat this round of baklava, but these pieces did not skimp on size. Large squares of baklava greeted us full of what I think were walnuts, though it may have been almonds. Whatever it was, it was delicious with wonderfully crunchy phyllo dough and amazingly chewy inner layers.
Back down to Woodley Park and past the National Zoo, Afghan Grill is a restaurant that I have found to be quite overlooked. Up a small flight of stairs lies the first restaurant of this tour with a large room boasting red walls, hardwood floors and many ornate lamps. This restaurant is actually a favorite of my grandmother, so I had been there quite a few times and love the sambosa, aushak and pumpkin buranee.
This walnut and cardamom baklava was the most unique tasting of all the baklavas on this tour, with cardamom adding an extra flavor to complement the soft and chewy dessert.
A short walk across the Duke Ellington Bridge and arguably the most well-known on the list, Mama Ayesha’s was our next stop. It certainly has the most well-known mural on its outside as Mama Ayesha Abraham herself stands in-front of the White House alongside 11 U.S. Presidents. The grandeur of the mural is matched on the inside where fountains, red cushy sofas, intricate lamps and Middle Eastern styles reign supreme. With a décor such as this, it is abundantly clear why Mama Ayesha’s is known to serve numerous ambassadors and government officials.
Their baklawa had a walnut filling, was lightly dusted with pieces of pistachio and all of the flavors mixed beautifully. It was a wonderful reminder that I really should order baklawa more often.
The last stop, Sharbat, was a nice quick walk into the heart of Adams Morgan. I felt like I must be sweating sugar at this point, but we pushed through to our final destination. This new Azerbaijani café has received a lot of attention since it opened. Aside from their honey cake, which I have been told multiple times is their best-seller, they have excellent pastries. The shorgoghal has become one of my favorites and, as its interior is only spices, I’ve convinced myself it’s healthy enough to eat multiple at a time.
Now this pakhlava I was familiar with. I had ordered it many times and knew its dark golden top with its single almond. Instead of the usual look of layers of phyllo dough, the interior was full of nuts, held together by what I can only imagine was syrup or honey or whatever goodness makes pakhlava one of the greatest desserts in the world.
I arrived home shortly after Sharbat and collapsed on the couch. My stomach, my head, my neck, I felt like everything had been reduced to the syrup and honey that makes baklava such a sugary dessert.
It was great. What is not great is that I felt like I had to choose a favorite out of all these baklavas. There was no way I could create a list in order of best to worst. I can promise anyone who visits any of these places, you will not be disappointed if you order the baklava. However, if I had to choose a favorite, it is the almond baklava at La Jolie Bleue.
If there is one thing that I believe this tour shows, it’s that baklavas, baklawas and pakhlavas are as diverse as their spelling, and I can promise you it is a very worthwhile adventure to try them all.