By Elana Schor - 07/13/07 07:01 PM EDT
Indebleu, a fixture in the colorful pantheon of eateries that surround the Verizon Center, was once known for its double life. Downstairs, the Tantra Lounge lured celebrities from Kelly Ripa to Prince with decadent cocktails and thumping club beats, while the upstairs dining room aimed to seduce the palate (if you could ignore the persistent bass tremors from below).
Approaching its third anniversary, Indebleu has undergone a makeover, opening this weekend with a more calming vibe. Adamstein & Demetriou, the Georgetown design firm that dolled up interiors at Poste, Zaytinya and other capital restaurants, has worked its magic on Indebleu with stunning results.
The scarlet hues of Tantra Lounge’s sensual couches now tint the entire downstairs seating area, and the D.J. booth, previously plunked uncomfortably close to the bar, has been cleverly hidden. Best of all, a wall at the front of the lounge contains sound-muffling elements to preserve the tranquility of the upstairs area, which is colored the dark saffron of Buddhist monks’ robes.
The Indian culinary influences of Vikram Garg, Indebleu’s executive chef, had struggled to work on the restaurant’s former menu. The French fusion concept, hefty price tag and formal atmosphere often confused Indebleu’s foodie patrons as much as the downstairs dance scene did.
But Garg and owner Arjun Rishi have cut the excess from their lineup, leaving only the most popular dishes from Indebleu’s earlier days and introducing a host of promising prospects.
Standing out on the appetizer list are crispy duck meatballs basking atop potato cakes in a tamarind-date chutney and samosa pastries, stuffed with rich lamb and sharp pecorino cheese. The wild mushroom dosa, a traditional Indian crèpe, is also a holdover item, although the bleu cheese cream continues to drown out the delicate texture of the lentil batter.
Still, Garg has not stopped experimenting with postmodern touches in the cuisine, an adventurousness that may help Indebleu compete with popular Indian neighbor Rasika on D Street NW. Two miniature “slider” hamburgers arrive with comfort-food condiments, a foie gras patty with rose-petal marmalade and a masala patty with Thousand Island dressing.
Indebleu’s entrees are the most welcome surprise, with lower prices and larger portions. Servers recommend the yellowfin tuna cooked rare, emphasizing the piquant chili-cilantro dressing and the addictive roasted “street corn” accompaniment, its crunch and spice reminiscent of Bombay’s famous street-corner snack carts.
Tandoori lamb chops, Garg’s old reliable main course, have traded in the grilled Portobello mushrooms accompaniment, which competed for attention with the tender meat, for low-key garlic mashed potatoes.
There are now three fish dishes, including a rejiggered take on the green pea-swathed salmon and a gorgeous black codfish in tomato-coconut curry. A chicken dish once overwhelmed by its goat-cheese filling is now a stellar traditional Indian tikka, perfect with the basket of warm rosemary naan bread that graces each table. Garg even has punched up his vegetarian offering, using the Bento box template popular in Japanese teahouses to offer a rotating cast of fragrant lentil, cheese and rice mixes.
Among the desserts, the deconstructed s’more is a knockout: light marshmallow ice cream with caramelized banana and a bittersweet chocolate soufflé with a heavenly liquid center.
The menu’s facelift, however, is but one ingredient in the alluring reinvention of Indebleu. Three appealing paintings from Sahara Harrington, a restaurant employee and local artist, draw the eye to the fantastical contours of the upstairs room.
Patterned ceiling tapestries billow invitingly in the Tantra Lounge. Wines by the glass include unpredictable surprises, such as a plum-spiked Zinfandel and Malbecs laden with pepper and oak notes.
Indebleu’s second act keeps it on the front lines with Gallery Place’s haute cuisine competitors, including Proof, the neighborhood’s new wine bar and Indebleu’s neighbor. Note to the customers now flocking to Proof: Starting next week, try heading next door.