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A Move to the Middle

Not too plain, not too fancy, 21 P aims for a spot in the center

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page W21

** 21 P
2100 P St. NW (at 21st Street). 202-223-3824
Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Wednesday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Smoking in bar area only. Limited wheelchair access. Metro: Dupont Circle. Valet parking at dinner Thursday through Saturday only. Prices: lunch appetizers $5 to $9, entrees $8.50 to $18; dinner appetizers $5 to $10, entrees $15 to $27.

Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $70 per person.

_____Tom Sietsema_____
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The last time I saw Mark Sakuta, he was making Cajun barbecued shrimp and Cuban sandwiches in a slip of a kitchen next to a carwash in Herndon.

SBC Cafe, which he ran with his wife, Hana, was like an unpolished gem. While the cooking was mostly delicious and plenty adventurous (conch chowder isn't exactly a shopping mall staple), the frills were few. The place looked like a deli and sometimes acted like one. Coffee was poured into paper cups, yet the small menu was enough of a lure to draw regulars from Washington.

SBC was sold late last year after the Sakutas decided to try their luck in Dupont Circle, and their new work space couldn't be more different. What used to house the restaurant BeDuCi has been transformed into a stylish den -- all soft lights and slatted walls -- with triple the number of seats of the couple's Herndon cafe (and a glass-wrapped front room to keep in mind when the weather's nice). The Sakutas named their restaurant after its location, near the corner of 21st and P streets, and set about trying to help fill a gap in the Washington restaurant scene.

"We want it to feel like a middle spot," the chef says, something casual, between cheap and fancy. "You don't have to make reservations," is how he describes the concept, "and there's no tasting menu." On the flip side, he thinks 21 P should also be able to suit "an occasion." Thus the dinner entrees average $19, and the diners next to you may be wearing jeans (look to the left) or jackets (look to the right).

The food, cross-cultural and personal, will be familiar to anyone who ate at SBC. It's great to be reunited with Sakuta's grilled red and yellow pepper soup, the separate colors each taking half the bowl and united with streaks of a bold cilantro sauce. The conch chowder is every bit as good as I remember it, too. The signature ingredient is pleasantly chewy and is combined with tomato, celery and potato in a red broth that shouts of hot sauce. Squares of moist cornbread hide in the bread basket here, just as at SBC, and dinner might still conclude with a custardy bread pudding. Cajun meatloaf, another carryover, is dense but flavor-packed, treated to tomato gravy and, unfortunately, dull whipped potatoes.

But the Sakutas -- joined this time by Mark's brother, Mike, in the dining room and Faniyi Yomi, a former sous chef at Le Petit Mistral in McLean, in the kitchen -- aren't merely offering up reruns. Scallops dusted with curry and served with coconut grits and pineapple chutney, for instance, is one of those delicious dishes that keep you coming back for more. The service has the same effect, and it's uncommonly knowledgeable and efficient for a fledgling operation. Waiters seem eager to introduce you to the kurobuta pork, from purebred Berkshire pigs, and they don't have to ask you who gets which dish.

The kitchen is partial to robust flavors and generous presentations, most noticeably in the first-course options. Tender braised veal cheeks are teamed with roasted-garlic custard and draped in a midnight-colored sauce that reverberates with red pepper, garlic and red wine. In another appetizer, a crepe brings together surf and turf (make that lobster and rabbit confit) along with little batons of carrot; a light mango sauce completes the picture. A salad of whole red and gold beets looks a little awkward -- they reminded my friends and me of dunce caps on the plate -- although they taste just fine and mingle well with the arugula and blue cheese beside them. Soups are sure bets, including a black bean and cheese version kicky with green and red zigzags of cilantro and roasted-pepper sauces. Mark Sakuta says either he or his second-in-command inspects every plate before it leaves the kitchen, and the generally eye-appealing presentations back up his claim.

Entrees are only slightly less engaging from a flavor perspective. Kobe beef stew hints of dark chocolate, but not enough salt, in its seasoning and is bested by its comforting sidekicks: red cabbage and spaeztle. And the pedigreed kurobuta pork, despite its sheer, crisp skin and well-marbled flesh, doesn't have much more punch than the competition. It arrives with a big entourage, including a bright dollop of pureed squash, a bundle of thin green beans and fruit chutney. The plate could easily lose its "cappuccino whip cream," which rests on a thin slice of pear and adds clutter. The best of the meat dishes has been veal tenderloin topped with a crab cake and further embellished with big, velvety oyster mushrooms.

Seafood dishes display the chefs' more refined side. A light tomato broth, zapped with lemon grass, serves as a heady base for bites of lobster, monkfish and more in 21 P's elegant seafood stew, while striped bass is roasted so that its surface gently crackles when you bite into it. The fish arrives on fennel-laced "crushed" potatoes and comes topped with a zesty relish of chopped tomato, olives and sweet onion. All the accents add up to some very nice eating.

Less exciting is what you get to drink with that and other dishes here: The wine list depends on too many mass producers, with ordinary labels offered at sometimes ridiculous markups, such as a bottle of Jacob's Creek riesling for $35 -- about four times the wholesale cost. Too bad the same heads that put so much sizzle into the food don't bother finding better wines to match.

Chocoholics are in luck at 21 P. One of the signatures on the dessert list is chocolate diablo, two slender bars of what tastes like fudge punctuated with walnuts and lightened, ever so subtly, by slices of tangerine. No less dreamy is chocolate pot de creme dressed up with whipped cream. There might also be amaretto-flavored chocolate cake, baked to order and rushed to the table while still warm, though it doesn't measure up to the other selections. The bread pudding is a class act, so light it's almost refreshing.

21 P sits within a block or two of Al Tiramisu, Johnny's Half Shell, Obelisk, Pizzeria Paradiso and Pesce -- restaurants with high standards and legions of fans. Young as it is, the newcomer brims with promise. Already, it's a "middle spot" worth exploring.

Ask Tom

The world is divided between diners who like to bond with their waiters and those who clearly don't. Glen Hunt, a reader from Bedford, Tex., falls squarely into the latter category. "One of the things that aggravates me no end is when the waiter comes back about halfway through the meal, when I have a mouthful of food, and asks, 'Is everything alright?' " Hunt writes in an e-mail. "Once they bring the grub, I don't care about seeing them anymore until it's time for the check" -- unless, he adds, "I want another beer maybe." And if something is wrong? "If everything 'ain't right,' I'll tell 'em." I can see his point about being interrupted with food in his mouth, but I still would prefer that to being completely abandoned. At least until waiters develop ESP.

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