Like it or not, the fancification of the U Street corridor continues, as Ulah Bistro joins the likes of Marvin and Station 9, upmarket venues that wouldn't look out of place in Georgetown or Penn Quarter.
Ulah comes across as a misspelling until we remind ourselves where we are and learn the owner's identity. Med Lahlou says he came up with the hybrid using the restaurant's address and the first three letters of his last name. No stranger to the business, he also co-owns Tunnicliff's on Capitol Hill and Stoney's in Logan Circle. Elements of both restaurants -- American food and decor that are the dining equivalent of easy-listening music -- are evident in the new one.
But Ulah appears inclined to one-up its siblings. Take the matter of pizza. Stoney's uses a common gas oven to bake its pies, while Ulah factors a wood fire into its recipe. And the menu of burgers, salads, fish and pasta from chef Mark Macuirles, previously of the Pampered Palate in Pasadena, is punctuated with dishes that show a sense of humor and a dash of whimsy. Thus meatloaf is described as "American pate" (it's decent, and also grilled), and "mojito" chicken supposedly is glazed with rum (although the spirit eludes us).
As Ulah eases into business, we can vouch for the kitchen's respectable pizza and the bar's potent Manhattans.
Visitors have a choice of two dining rooms: a sunny ground floor, trimmed with crown molding, that ends in an open kitchen, and a second story that fulfills Lahlou's "two-in-one" wish to include a lounge in the mix of 130 or so seats. Dressed with low couches, lights that resemble tiny red flying saucers and a black granite bar (in addition to tables), the upstairs space also captures a pigeon's-eye view of a neighborhood treasure, Ben's Chili Bowl.
--Tom Sietsema (First Bite, March 12, 2008)