K Street is still stodgy, have no doubt. But when a restaurant along the famous power alley serves inventive cuisine and a prominent energy lobbyist displays his paintings on the walls, things are changing.
One can hardly expect change to come to the neighborhood as rapidly as it did at Restaurant Kolumbia. Owners Jamie and Carolyn Stachowski, who handle the cooking and the front of the house, respectively, purchased the place in September 2003, when it was still known as Le Tarbouche.
After operating under that name for about eight months, they closed briefly for a face lift and relaunched under a new name and with a new menu wholly designed by Chef Stachowski.
In a city rife with self-made chefs, Stachowski offers one of the best success stories. A native of Buffalo, he recalls sleeping in his car in Los Angeles at age 17, waiting to beg Wolfgang Puck for a job.
Ultimately, he landed a job with Puck, and at the famed Le Perigord in New York, and finally, beginning in 1984, at the Watergate Hotel under the late Jean-Louis Palladin. Apart from a short stint in Beirut, Lebanon, he has remained in Washington ever since, opening eCitie in Tysons Corner and helming the kitchens at such diverse restaurants as J. Paul’s and Pesce.
Stachowski’s cooking splits the difference between classic and contemporary. He still uses painstaking classical French techniques that require tending a sauce for a day and a half or slow roasting a lamb shoulder for eight hours. But, like many chefs who are expanding their horizons, his ingredients go beyond the classical pantry. He shows off his affinity for Eastern cooking with an earthy, creamy curry dressing that spices up an otherwise simple starter salad of watercress, julienned carrots and apples.
And his Polish roots come through in the array of sausages and cured meats that find their way onto the menu, most notably a rich, soft-textured boudin rouge.
When Kolumbia opened, the kitchen took heat in some quarters for attempting to do too much with its dishes, at the expense of cohesion. There is still some evidence of this. In one dish, a potato gratin and watercress cr�me failed to marry the disparate flavors and textures of seared sea scallops and chicken livers. Ditto the anchovy tartlette with tuna tartare.
But overall, such missteps are little in evidence on the ever-changing menu. The rule is well-executed yet still-innovative presentations. Take a house-made gnocchi, seared brown in butter on one side and tossed with smoked trout in a creamy sauce. Or a lunchtime ravioli of leeks, goat cheese and mascarpone with a rich porcini-parmesan sauce and rosemary oil.
Other standouts include bacon-wrapped diver scallops over succotash and a pimento purée, and a simply sublime “veal trio” of braised veal breast, grilled veal cheek and the aforementioned boudin rouge.
At lunch you can expect a half-dozen “composed salads” using unlikely ingredients such as duck confit, crispy brandade ravioli or hazelnut vinaigrette.
Even at dinner, the salads are worth trying. Served over spinach and grapes, veal sweetbreads lost some of their delicateness thanks to the deep-fried preparation but gained a unique, caramelized sweetness. And a composition of fava beans, lentils, butter lettuce and creamy chevre could please the most ardent vegetarian.
The restaurant frequently hosts wine dinners and chef’s tastings, where the attraction is often the garrulous, hyperactive Stachowski himself — especially when he combines the occasion with what he calls “demo dining.” This is yet another twist on the chef’s table and cooking-class concepts proliferating of late, in which he’ll come out into the dining room, supplies and ingredients in hand, and demonstrate the preparation of one or more courses for all assembled before serving the finished product.
Unfortunately, the inconsistent floor staff often lacks Stachowski’s enthusiasm. On one visit, it took 20 minutes and several frantic waves for anyone to approach our table, save the buser who poured our water.
Carolyn Stachowski helped to open Equinox near the White House and Majestic Café in Old Town Alexandria. But she brings more than a restaurant background to Kolumbia. A certified sommelier, she’s assembled a short and sweet wine list, with a good variety from around the world. Most bottles run between $35 and $70.
She also is an accomplished artist who has sold many works locally in a variety of media, and, as such, she’s responsible for the aesthetics of the place, right down to the unique name and logo. (The “K” spelling, she says, is simply an aesthetic touch, as is the early industrial Russian font in which it’s written.)
For the restaurant’s transformation in May 2004, she drenched the 110-seat dining room in dark shades of red and purple, installed new light fixtures and added several of her own sculptures, paintings and fabrics.
In the long, narrow, European-inspired bar area, the restaurant’s location meets perfectly with its attention to fine art. Gerald McPhee, a lobbyist for Occidental Petroleum, is showing several of his own paintings there — yet another novelty that makes this restaurant a deserved K Street destination.