On Tabaq Bistro's roof, the small plates are accompanied by an expansive vista
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Oct. 23, 2005
As I ease into some stuffed grape leaves at Tabaq Bistro, looking up now and then from my rooftop perch to see the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument in the distance, I consider a new answer to the question I hear almost every week: Where can I catch a view with a meal?
For anyone who has tried to find a restaurant with a Washington backdrop and food that is equal to the scenery, the arrival of Tabaq is no small news flash. While the fourth-floor aerie of this multistory newcomer on U Street NW requires a good heart and strong legs to reach, the reward for the cardio workout is a seductive, candlelit dining room and bar beneath a high, tented glass ceiling -- a ceiling that opens to let in the night air when it's balmy and closes at the first few drops of precipitation. "It will be beautiful up here when it snows," forecasts Omer Buyukbayrak, who owns Tabaq with his brother Melih.
The siblings hail from Meze in Adams-Morgan and continue to do what they used to do at that Turkish-themed restaurant -- small plates -- only better and in tonier digs. The fun actually starts below ground, in an intimate lounge with low stools, and continues on the narrow main floor with a long row of red seats before climbing to the roof. Don't show up in athletic wear, shorts or sneakers, though. "Proper Dress Required," a sign at the entrance announces. It is the first of several reminders that Tabaq is blazing a fresh trail in this no-longer-so-Bohemian neighborhood. A well-dressed host outside and valet parking attendants on the street also look more Georgetown than U Street.
By now, a regular restaurant-goer knows what to expect of a place where small plates rule: a server who explains the concept of tapas and the pleasure of sharing food. (Decades from now, when filmmakers want to depict life at the turn of this century, they will surely include a restaurant scene where a gaggle of friends are consuming bites of this and that from a table crowded with little plates.) There are more than 40 tapas to consider at Tabaq, and they span the realm of tastes, from liquid to solid, meatless to meaty, surf to turf.
Vegetarians will find a welcome mat in the form of the aforementioned grape leaves, stuffed with rice, currants and pine nuts; stubby phyllo "cigars" fattened with warm feta cheese and spinach; creamy-centered zucchini pancakes lapped with a light tomato sauce; and a salad of juicy orange slices topped with soft fried eggplant cubes and a frizzy crown of fried parsley. The portions are small, but the flavors are expansive. Well, most of them are. Curiously, dips are not a strong suit; hummus tasted of old chickpeas, and a puree of roasted red peppers with crushed walnuts resembled chunky peanut butter. The one spread I'd be eager to revisit is eggplant mashed with copious amounts of garlic and cumin. (A chaser of breath mints would be a good idea.)
Liver and onions adopts a Turkish accent at Tabaq, where the rich organ meat is seared, chopped and tossed with bold herbs, caramelized onions and crushed red pepper -- whose heat appears suddenly and surprisingly, like a patrol car you glimpse behind some highway bushes as you zoom by. Compact but juicy beef-and-lamb patties come three to a plate. Pine nuts in the blend make for a soft crunch, the grill imparts a nice char, and dabs of tart yogurt lend cool contrast to the winning dish.
Some tapas are pretty to look at but fall flat on the tongue. Chicken wrapped around sliced apricots and red bell pepper and cut into edible mosaics, for instance, would be better if the chicken weren't so dry. Other tapas need to go back to the drawing board. Flattened squid in a spiky coat of pastry is a weird sensation, akin to eating a rubber band between sheets of shredded wheat. And some little plates just need a bit more care. Rice-stuffed mussels would be terrific if they could be served without the grit that somehow gets past the cooks.
Tabaq also offers a smattering of entrees, the most appealing of which is a fillet of subtly sweet and meaty branzini (Mediterranean sea bass). Decorated with glossy spinach, the skin-on fish rests on a bed of fluffy rice, crunchy with almonds and sweet with currants, and is circled by a creamy lobster sauce: Each element contributes to the success of the dish. Moist bites of skewered lamb and beef -- deftly seasoned with paprika, cumin and other aggressive notes, then bedded on lemony rice -- represent another success story.
The rest of the other big dishes, however, seem to magnify the kitchen's flaws. Tabaq chicken is supposed to be a chicken breast but looks like several, stuffed with spinach, cheese and red peppers, piled on a mattress of garlic mashed potatoes and made louder with a sauce of basil and sundried tomatoes.
"I can't see what I'm eating," a thirty-something friend says as he tries to examine an enormous lamb shank jutting out of a white tureen that also holds a gray swamp of pureed eggplant, cream and a couple cheeses. Indeed, sitting on the roof, after the sun sets and the shiplike lights along the base of the walls are dimmed, will challenge those customers with less-than-acute vision. Tabaq's small tables also can't accommodate much more than a little plate per person, which means surrendering bread baskets to servers and putting wine bottles and even salt and pepper shakers on nearby ledges. (Is that the sound of a dropped glass I hear? It is.)
Stick with the wines that hail from Tabaq's inspiration -- Turkey, Lebanon and Greece -- and you can drink quite nicely, though the average $8 per glass cost seems out of sync with the otherwise moderately priced menu. (The domestic and Australian labels are more familiar, but also more prosaic.)
The servers are quick to praise the kitchen's dessert souffles, which take 20 minutes or so and are worth the wait. My pick is the Grand Marnier souffle, which rises tall and warm from its dish and comes with a little pitcher of rich vanilla sauce. Given the restaurant's ownership, baklava is an odd disappointment of tough pastry and achingly sweet syrup, and a lemon tart, though nicely tangy, has the texture of scrambled eggs. On the other hand, creme brulee dappled with figs sweetly bridges a taste of Europe with the Mediterranean.
With its endearing service and sexy scene, Tabaq would be a fun place to hang out even if the food were half as good as it is. Throw in its postcard views, and you've got yourself a night to remember.