2424 18th St. NW (near Belmont Road). 202-464-2100.
Open: for breakfast Monday through Friday 8 to 11 a.m.; for brunch Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 5 to 11 p.m. Sushi bar open Sunday through Thursday 2 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 2 p.m. to 1 a.m. AE, D, MC, V. No reservations. Smoking permitted. Metro: Woodley Park. Valet parking Tuesday through Sunday after 5 p.m. Prices: appetizers $6 to $11, entrees $7 to $15. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50 per person.
Who thought Sahir Erozan would ever get bored? For 17 years, the Turkish-born restaurateur took his customers on a trip around the world via Cities in Adams Morgan, where the menu and the interior changed periodically to reflect a foreign destination. The pit stops included Venice, Bangkok, St. Petersburg, Istanbul, Paris and Barcelona. Some of the excursions proved more appealing than others, but, no matter the port, diners always knew they'd move on to a different destination eventually.
Or so it seemed. The world tour finally ended this spring when Erozan scrapped the road trips in favor of something fresh -- and highly ambitious. For starters, he ditched the once-moody interior of Cities, bathing the room in white paint and installing cozy orange leather booths and communal tables. The new menu spoke a different language, too; dishes fell under Zenlike themes of "garden," "ocean" and "farm" and were priced to encourage regular visits (nothing is higher than $15). The hours embraced breakfast, lunch, dinner and later. Like a lot of modern restaurateurs, Erozan even tossed in a sushi bar. He christened the venture Leftbank and hoped to entertain a cross section of Washington in its nearly 200 seats.
The menu reflects the way a lot of us are eating these days -- or think we should eat. So Leftbank's bistro-y plates play up health-conscious ideas, and its portions skew toward the moderate. Instead of a traditional hamburger, diners can sink their teeth into a thick and crusty bison burger, leaner than beef and served with (here's where some decadence slips in) a fistful of herb-sprinkled french fries. From "ocean" comes a trio of tender shrimp crowned with curly endive and poised on vervy diced avocado and tomato. Another light start brings together thin, grill-striped asparagus topped with a perfect poached egg and a slice of manchego cheese, which slowly melts from the heat of the egg and adds its nutty flavor to the salad. The sushi I've tried, from the counter in the back, is better than you might expect of a place that doesn't specialize in it; yellowtail tasted of quality fish, and a roll with softshell crab offered delicate crunch.
The raw vegetable plate is a nice idea, and its baby carrots, haricots verts and bright peppers all look prime, but they lack seasoning and come with too little of their eggplant dip. Eating the appetizer is as much fun as drinking water on New Year's Eve. Vegetables get better treatment in a warm entree of thin green beans, creamy cubes of tofu and crisp bites of bell pepper tossed with a smooth sauce and black sesame seeds. The meat-free dish is fancifully staged in a white bowl with a raised swoop that suggests the car of a Tilt-A-Whirl.
This is not to suggest that you can't indulge at Leftbank. A lobster sandwich, though built with whole-grain bread, also comes with a generous portion of sweet lobster meat in a creamy binder, with slices of cooked egg and crunchy bacon. There's even a respectable cheese plate -- I opted for the Spanish sampler, accessorized with nuts and fruit paste -- but don't count on your young server being able to accurately identify the individual wedges.
And don't count on a smooth breakfast. There were only three customers the weekday morning I dropped by, yet the waiter on duty behind the U-shaped counter seemed hard-pressed to handle even our simple requests. Espresso was made and then forgotten, so it arrived tepid. A request for one of the menu's fruit smoothies was met with a blank stare, as if no one had ever before requested one of the half-dozen or so listed on the menu. Water was never poured, and it wasn't until minutes after I got a plate of pancakes (light and fluffy, by the way) that some silverware materialized. Lord help Leftbank if a busload of customers ever shows up for breakfast. The highlight of the meal, however, was when a cook pulled up to my seat with a metal cart laden with chopped vegetables, grated cheeses and diced meats. As I watched, he made an omelet. It was plump and pleasant enough.
It turns out that Leftbank has plenty of lesser moments. One of them is heavy, dull fried calamari, minimally redeemed by its brassy chipotle dip. Another is minute steak, thin and bland despite its herbed butter topping. A third is a tough chicken sandwich. Two hunks of sinewy tuna get bookended by vapid mashed potatoes, the fish and starch ringed by a vague yellow sauce. And desserts underscore the low priority that so many Washington restaurants place on the final course. The strawberry shortcake is particularly bad, thanks to pastry that resembles crackers and whipped cream that tastes fake.
The room helps take your mind off such disappointments. If Leftbank is anything, it's a page torn out of Elle Decor. Pretty orange and yellow water glasses on the tables break up the vision in white, as does a forest of branches that marches across one wall. When the front glass doors are thrown open, the sounds of the neighborhood slip inside, mingling with global music and making the restaurant a cool place to unwind. If the gals from "Sex and the City" were still around, this is where you'd spot them on a detour to Washington.
Eager to please, Leftbank offers plenty of variety. In theory, that's great. But lots of options need the support of a better-trained crew and a more consistent kitchen. At present, this made-over restaurant is a stunning blonde that needs more polish if she wants to make -- and keep -- new friends.
Like a lot of female diners I hear from, Marcia Buscher wishes more servers would identify her as a woman rather than a man. Specifically, the Silver Spring reader says, she is turned off when a server approaches a table of mixed sexes and asks if "you guys" are ready to order. "My husband thinks that I am being overly sensitive," she tells me in an e-mail, "but being addressed as a 'guy' when I [am] wearing my finest does not set a great tone for me." I side with Ms. Buscher. "You guys" is too familiar in any case, and worse when addressed to a woman. It can diminish the dining experience just as surely as loud music or poor lighting can. Catch that, ladies and gentlemen?
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