By Elana Schor - 09/29/05 12:00 AM EDT
Until now, the U Street corridor has been known more for the rich cupcakes of Cakelove and the spicy chili dogs of Ben’s than for fine-dining options. But Tabaq Bistro, newly arrived on thriving and gentrifying U Street, adds a touch of glamour to the neighborhood.
Co-owners Melhi and Omer Buyukbayrak, brothers originally from Istanbul and formerly of the popular Adams Morgan lounge Meze, have given their new hot spot a delightfully split personality. The word “tabaq” has two meanings to match the two cultures that influence the restaurant — in Arabic, “level,” and in Turkish, “plate.”
The levels of Tabaq, which stretch about four floors above street level, offer distinct design flourishes to attract different types of diners. The first floor, also called the Red Room, is swathed in stunning scarlet tones from the banquettes to the chairs. Below ground is the lounge area, decorated with a sultry metal curtain and minimalist French prints on the walls.
But Tabaq’s most compelling asset, dwarfing even the flavorful and inventive dishes, is its roof. Convertible glass surrounds the ample seating area on all sides, creating the thrilling sensation of eating inside a greenhouse — and, best of all, the roof deck’s retractable top means Tabaq can dish out babaganoush and calamari through rain, sleet and snow.
Tabaq’s menu is more than worth the trip off the Hill and up the often multiple flights of stairs. Its offerings borrow freely from the city’s other Mediterranean stalwarts, tweaking Zaytinya’s bronzini fish with aromatic almond rice and adding spinach to Meze’s cigar-shaped feta pastries. The best dishes are those rarely found in American Arabic restaurants, including a standout muhammara, the traditional Turkish walnut-and-red-pepper spread.
The muhammara’s smoky undertones pair perfectly with the braided loops of bread served warm at each table and frequently replenished, along with plates of basil-infused olive oil. A can’t-miss grilled lamb chop is also served on a bed of the autumnal-colored muhammarah.
Newcomers to Middle Eastern cuisine will want to stick to familiar dishes such as the hearty homemade hummus, which can also be ordered with sucuk, a spicy Turkish sausage. Zucchini-and-cheese pancakes set off by a tangy roasted tomato sauce doubtlessly will please those palates less accustomed to the flavors of the region.
Tabaq’s servers can be overly attentive, often interrupting spirited conversation with an extraneous inquiry into your needs. Still, erring on the side of solicitousness is a welcome change from the usual standoffish wait staffs at stylish restaurants, and patrons are not discouraged from ordering small dishes in groups, stretching out a few appetizers and drinks into a three-hour meal.
For those with full-scale appetites, splitting several small plates and one or two main courses is recommended. The appetizer portions can vary widely, from the undersized and regrettably undersauced kofte, a mixture of ground lamb and beef topped with a yogurt-garlic concoction, to the filling and delicately spiced dolma, grape leaves stuffed with pine nuts and currants.
Middle Eastern dishes often are adapted for modern appetites with a minimalist sensibility, keeping sauces and accompaniments light to offset the weight of the region’s red-meat and eggplant staples. For its part, Tabaq makes no apologies; soft-shell crab comes with a rich raspberry accompaniment and the chef’s special lamb is dressed with a buttery French bechamel sauce as well as the sharpness of kashar, a Turkish cheese similar in texture to American cottage cheese.
The salads are one minor lowlight in Tabaq’s otherwise formidable culinary arsenal. One gets the feeling that an adjustment in the balance of ingredients — fewer walnuts and a stronger dressing on the signature house salad, a less intrusively Italian-tasting marinade on the romaine salad’s mozzarella cheese — might make the salad menu a tad less schizophrenic.
Several American dishes also have made their way onto Tabaq’s brunch menu, which is served from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends: pancakes with fresh berries, Nutella French toast and omelets. Given that traditional Turkish breakfast can include anything from lentil soup to boiled eggs with petrified yolks, however, the accommodation to conventional capital taste buds is a smart one.
The legions of twenty-somethings packing U Street sidewalks most nights of the week are sure to be swayed by Tabaq’s posh d�cor and affordable dinner selections, but clever cocktails are the secret to keeping young customers interested. And in the drinks department, Tabaq never fails.
The first-floor bartender, Omar, keeps up a lively patter as he hand-mixes any of 10 custom libations that expertly mingle sweet and spicy flavors. The Roma, made from pomegranate vodka, pomegranate juice and sour mix, is tart and satisfying without the cloying sweetness of typical fruity martinis. The Gingebre mates the unlikely tastes of orange juice and muddled ginger with vodka and sugar to create a newfangled spin on the structure of a mojito.
Tabaq also offers a compelling list of Turkish, Lebanese and stateside wines, the reds full-bodied with hints of fruit and the whites dryly oaken. The beer selections include a sophisticated tap lineup of Stella Artois, Leffe and the locally underserved, light-as-a-feather Hoegaarden. But the star of Tabaq’s drink menu is undoubtedly the mojitos themselves, made with fresh mint, Cruzan rum and the optimal subtle splash of soda.
The mojitos are also available with fresh accents of passion fruit, strawberry, blueberry and kiwi. At $8 and $9, the fruit mojitos are priced lower than the martini list and an excellent option for an impromptu happy-hour jaunt. Tabaq already offers the ideal toast, to the neglected east side of Dupont finally being blessed with rooftop views of the Capitol and Washington Monument.
Try it at sunset, and add a kebab — you won’t be disappointed.