Tom Sietsema on Buddha bar: Local link in chain proves weak

(Scott Suchman)
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By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, September 19, 2010

The moment you step inside Buddha Bar, you leave Washington for ...

Some nights, the nearly 10,000 square feet feel like New York, especially when your entrance is prefaced by a rope and a suit outside. Women who could double as cover girls (Those smiles! Those legs!) look up from a glowing screen to ask if you have a reservation. If you don't already know that this is part of a far-flung collection of watering holes, the display of CDs, T-shirts and incense sticks with the Buddha Bar imprint will clue you in.

The flashy new lounge and restaurant, unleashed in May, also suggests Las Vegas. Even at lunch, there's the sense of the illicit. It might be sunshine and blue skies outside, but inside, the low lighting and chill music spell late night. Surveying the vast interior -- starting with a radioactive-red bar bordered with murals depicting Asian tattoos and embracing a DJ booth and Buddah Bar's 18-foot-high inspiration in shiny black onyx -- a friend with more than a little design sense labels the style "Victoriental." Buddha Bar's tasseled chandeliers, theater-length curtains and luxe fabrics support the mini-review.

Better to gawk than to graze here, because it takes some hunting on the pan-Asian menu to find food you'd want to try again. Spring rolls stand on their plate like edible Stonehenges; the fried snacks taste mostly of steamed cabbage. Buddha Bar's beef satay is so soft, I wonder how it stays on its skewer. "No need for teeth!" a pal says as he encounters the mushy meat, which comes with a vague basil dipping cream. One night, the best of a dozen dishes I sampled was an $8 side dish of noodles with onions and carrot threads. It tasted familiar, not unlike the grub from my neighborhood Chinese carryout that also sells subs and pizza.

There's a page of sushi and rolls, most of them disappointing. Blindfolded, I would have had trouble distinguishing the dark red tuna from the pale yellowtail; both fish shoot blanks on the tongue. Pink Lady, one of several rolls I sampled, combines crab, lobster and shrimp tempura with a cloying sesame sauce that appeared to be the work of a pastry chef.

I thought I'd eaten every variation of tuna tartare there is, but the kitchen delivered a first: "Deconstructed tuna," our server announced as she tried to find room on a crowded table for a plate lined with separate dollops of diced raw fish, diced avocado and the minced relish known as pico de gallo. "Just mix them together," she instructed. (Um, why am I paying $15 to assemble an appetizer?) There are chips on the side of the plate to use as scoops, but they're so fragile, they snap apart on contact with the tartare. (And, why, despite all the components, is the appetizer so lackluster?)

Odds are in your favor here if you like sugar and mayonnaise. Sugar, in particular, is used with abandon in this kitchen. You encounter sweetness in the sauce that borders that tuna tartare and again in the vaguely spicy red curry with shrimp, and yet again with one night's special roll involving salmon, tuna and tropical fruit that brought to mind Hawaiian Punch.

The dark bamboo tables are attractive but impractical, because anything more than three dishes becomes a crowd. Despite the servers' best efforts at maneuvering, patrons find themselves surrendering all but what's absolutely essential to accommodate their orders. "Does anyone want sugar?" a server asked at one point, removing a condiment holder along with our water glasses.

At a recent lunch, we're encouraged to order the beef sliders. "We're having a competition on who can sell the most," our waitress says, then starts spinning: "But I wouldn't recommend anything I didn't like." The only detail I can appreciate on the plate is the toasted buns. Otherwise, the three two-bite hamburgers are a little dry (and sweet from their sauce). The "truffle-flavored" french fries that come with them aren't just false advertising, they're clearly commercial.

The adage that frying makes just about anything edible is true when it comes to starters of rock shrimp and calamari. In the first dish, the crackle of tempura gives way to the juiciness of the seafood, streaked with a chili-fueled mayonnaise that reinforces the richness of the appetizer. Salt and pepper calamari is true to its description, and hot (with jalapeƱo rings) to boot. If you absolutely, positively need to sate your curiosity about this extravaganza, these are the nibbles to seek out.

It might be hard to hear the crunch in the former or spot the heat source in the latter, at least at dinner. As the evening progresses, the music amps up and the lights go down. Miners' helmets should have been part of the design budget here.

The antidote to most bad meals: booze. But the cocktails at Buddha Bar hark to a time before ice was treated with reverence and bartenders became artists. The sweet mixed drinks here appear to have been created in a tiki hut, hold the little umbrellas.

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