Cafe Tu-O-Tu

Mediterranean
$$$$ ($14 and under)
Cafe Tu-O-Tu photo
James M. Thresher/For The Post
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Editorial Review

At Cafe Tu-o-tu, think greens

By Julia Beizer
Friday, December 18, 2009

At a glance: Georgetown's Cafe Tu-o-tu has all the trappings of a typical sandwich shop. In a skinny rowhouse just west of the Four Seasons Hotel, the restaurant has free WiFi, hot coffee and dozens of salad and sandwich options listed on a menu above the galley kitchen.

But small touches here and there lend a European vibe to the mostly grab-and-go shop. Pendant lights drop from the ceiling, casting a warmer glow on the often-crowded counter-and-kitchen in the front room. Dance music buzzes softly from the speakers. The dining rooms are pretty utilitarian, but cozy with 40 seats stuffed into the two spaces (one on the main level, one upstairs). The cafe's heavily punctuated name is a play on the District's area code.

On the menu: "Our spreads make the difference, really," says owner Mino Sarano of the sandwich and panini choices. He's right. Basil pesto and a spicy red pepper spread perk up many of the sandwich combos. The panini named for Sarano ("Mino's") is worth trying. It's made up of chicken, sucuk (a spicy sausage), roasted red peppers, mozzarella and sun-dried tomato pesto. The "Fusion" panini is another good bet, pairing that pesto with chicken, caramelized onions and peppers. (The paninis and sandwiches come with chips.)

Salads, though, turn out to be the stars of the menu. A mix of green and black olives atop bitter arugula was sweetened by the presence of sun-dried tomatoes. The strawberry salad is a treat even outside of strawberry season. Slices of the red fruit combine with dried cranberries, goat cheese, Parmesan cheese and baby spinach. Tu-o-tu doesn't just toss together some ingredients; it carefully arranges the salads on trays. Vibrant yellow mango slices are arched over lush green baby arugula and dotted with ruby-colored cranberries. Mini mozzarella balls trace their way across baby spinach. It's a neat touch and a better advertisement for the dishes than the menu could ever be. Salads can be ordered in several sizes, making it easier to pair one with a sandwich.

The cafe has breakfast items as well (ham and eggs folded gently into a warm croissant, omelets, bagels, etc.), but the Mediterranean breakfast is one of the few hints on the menu that Sarano hails from Turkey. It includes feta, olives, turkey, cucumbers, tomato and a baguette.

The restaurant doesn't make its desserts in-house, but the honey-flavored baklava and fudgy Firehook brownies are pleasant meal-ending indulgences.At your service: This is an order-at-the-counter kind of place. During the busy lunch hour, customers congregate around the cash register waiting for their to-go orders to appear. It's crowded, so call ahead if you want carryout. Should you choose to eat in, a server will bring your meal to the table.

What to avoid: I generally preferred the crispy pressed ciabatta paninis to the sandwiches on baguettes. Watch out for such out-of-season items as Styrofoam-y tomatoes. And take note: The kitchen doesn't stock all the advertised salads at one time.

Wet your whistle: The restaurant offers Turkish coffee, regular coffee and a handful of espresso drinks. There are juices and soda. The shop does not serve alcohol.

Bottom line: Better than your average sandwich shop, Tu-o-tu is a place to keep in mind when you're in the neighborhood. Especially at this time of year, it's a comfortable, tasty spot to recharge after a few hours of holiday shopping.