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Bleu Cross

IndeBleu mixes India with America, noise with calm, and great dishes with iffy ones

By Tom Sietsema

Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page W23

** IndeBleu
707 G St. NW (near Seventh Street) 202-333-2538.
Open: for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:45 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m.; bar menu available Sunday through Thursday until 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday until 2 a.m. All major credit cards. Smoking on ground floor only. Metro: Gallery Place. Valet parking. Prices: appetizers $9 to $18, entrees $25 to $39. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $90 per person.

IndeBleu wants to be many things to many people.

_____Tom Sietsema_____
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In its dim cave of a lounge on the ground floor, patrons sprawl on low sofas or what look like curved pumpkin-colored mattresses to sip "mangotinis" and eat finger food that gives American notions (tuna tartare) an Indian twist (the raw fish is sandwiched between lentil wafers). Music is played at a level that requires friends sitting right next to you to shout; even then, "How was work?" sounds like, "What a jerk!"

Up a flight of stairs, however, are two comparatively serene dining rooms, one of which is coolly elegant, with sheer curtains and ivory-toned walls, the other of which fairly pulses in red and orange. Here customers are greeted with an elegant treat from the kitchen (typically a demitasse of wonderful soup), rosemary-flecked naan doled out from a wide woven basket and service that suggests some serious training. A team of waiters delivers water to everyone at the table at precisely the same moment, and each course is synchronized the same way -- a fanciful yet practical gesture.

Even a visit to the men's restroom, paved in groovy orange tiles, is no routine stop, certainly not when you pull a handle on the sink and get a gentle waterfall in response.

IndeBleu, which debuted in Penn Quarter in December, is many things, none of them ordinary. Created by a Virginia-based company, Enterprise Bleu, that also owns a hair salon and a dance studio, IndeBleu brings together a chef, Vikram Garg, who hails from hotel kitchens in Bombay, New Delhi, Dubai and the British Virgin Islands, and a general manager, Jay Coldren, who spent several years coddling patrons at the Inn at Little Washington. The union makes for some adventurous eating and plenty of amusing moments. What at first glance looks like a Metro map turns out to be your drinks menu, and foie gras -- all too familiar in high-end restaurants -- becomes novel when it is served with a marmalade of rose petals between slices of garam masala brioche.

Given the backdrop, you should be prepared for a dinner menu that is just as unconventional, divided into first, second and main courses, and arranged as a sort of flip chart, with a black ribbon to hold your place. Since firsts and seconds are similarly priced, you can think of the dozen or so choices as appetizers. By all means, include in your sampling the dosa stuffed with mushrooms. The sheer, crisp Indian crepe yields to a center of wild mushrooms -- chanterelles, portobellos, morels -- that are meaty and flavor-packed, all made zestier by a blue cheese sauce. Frothy lobster bisque is embellished with shimmering caviar and a "brandade" fashioned from mashed potatoes, lobster and olive oil, then sprinkled with crushed curry leaves that add a mysterious bitter accent. On the other hand, snails nestled with pearl onions are oddly paired with sweet ginger shortbread, and samosas stuffed with shredded rabbit and served with apple chutney would be better if their pastry had more savor; here it's bland. Some of the chef's good ideas need fine-tuning.

IndeBleu is that uncommon restaurant where main courses tend to outshine starters. The evidence comes in several forms, beginning with a very good veal tenderloin, encircled by a cardamom-infused sauce of custardy sweetbreads, and accompanied by split roasted potatoes filled with raisins, cashews and other goodies. A lovely raft of crisp sea bass sports a crown of thin fried leeks and is set atop a rice pilaf enriched with coconut milk. And buttery-tasting sliced duck is paired with a risotto cake. A little casserole dish of chicken, carrots and morels gets a nice assist from an Indian-accented pesto on the side, but the chicken, alas, was arid when I tried it.

Heavy on wines from California's Napa Valley and France, IndeBleu's liquid pleasures include a nice white burgundy by the glass and a fine list of vintage champagnes and blush wines, which tend to pair well with Indian accents. Unfortunately, the wine list is riddled with sloppy misspellings, and the glassware is pretty inelegant given the cost of a meal here.

From the lounge menu come snacks that aim to make you smile and sometimes do (anyone for a "Bombay burrito" or a tandoori lamb "lollipop"?). My favorite cocktail companion is that tuna tartare, followed by a gutsy samosa fattened with sweet shredded barbecued beef and ready to be dunked in a dipping sauce of blue cheese. Those lamb lollipops turn out to be lamb with a protruding bone and a glaze that tastes of mint -- they're pleasant enough -- while the fried shrimp, crunchy beneath a cornflake crust, prove dull and overcooked. Lentil doughnuts are soft, hot and presented with "shallot creme fraiche" that, for better or for worse, will remind baby boomers of the stuff Mom used to make using dried onion soup mix.

Desserts are exotic -- and mixed. A panna cotta flavored with mint and litchi is more dense than that gelatin-lightened custard should be, a flaw reinforced by the stolid pear tart on which it rests. Profiteroles filled with chocolate cookie ice cream seem like an idea hatched by a bunch of elementary school kids when the teacher wasn't looking. Better: "choco sutra," a fudgy dome of chocolate capped by pleasantly chewy white-chocolate ice cream, with brandy-steeped cherries in the middle. And only a curmudgeon could stifle a grin at the sight of the kitchen's spin on spaghetti and meatballs, whereby saffron-cardamom ice cream becomes pasta at the table, thanks to a hand-held press, and warm Indian milk balls (gulab jamun) play the role of the meatballs. It's entertaining, and satisfying.

The bill gives the restaurant one more chance to play with you. The line of the check that states the tax reads, "IRS BS," while the total is described as "the dough you owe." If nothing else, IndeBleu is serious about its fun.

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After a restaurateur complained via my online discussion about customers expecting too much compensation when things go wrong, I received an e-mail from Bonni Cellini, who wanted to remind the industry that "there are decent people out there" as well. The Washington reader wrote: "My father owned a restaurant which caught on fire and burned to the ground right in the middle of the dinner rush. Thankfully everyone got out okay and in time, including my dad. A year later the restaurant was completely rebuilt. On the third night it had reopened a man walked up to my dad and handed him an envelope, leaned in and said, 'I was in your restaurant the night it burned down a year ago. My family and I had just finished dinner when the fire started. I never paid for dinner. Here is the money I owe you.'" Cellini added, "Of course my dad tried to refuse, but the man insisted." Both parties sound like they should have been cloned.

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