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Hometown, Downtown

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 1998

  Richman Review

Turning Tables

Some people eat the rotten apples first. They must be the ones who grow up to be restaurateurs. All too often their maitres d' try to foist the worst tables on the early diners, maybe hoping they'll be suckers enough to take them without protest. Early one evening my guests and I were ushered into the claustrophobic side room of one restaurant while the lively main room still had empty tables. And at another restaurant, newly opened, most of the tables were empty when the host escorted me to one wedged against the bar with a wall jutting into the chair space. Just as you'd return a burned dinner or a spoiled wine, you need not accept an uncomfortable table – or return to a restaurant that makes you feel like a second-rate customer.
Think of Mike Baker's as an antidote to the Hard Rock Cafe.

The Hard Rock, across the street and down the block, inevitably has a line in front – unless you come at dawn, I suppose. It's all about fame and glitz. Mike Baker's is a hometown sort of place, three dining rooms and two bars that look as if they were decorated from a Sears catalogue. Tenth Street is not in the middle of a renaissance like Seventh Street, and Mike Baker's is wedged in between T-shirt vendors to the south and boarded-up storefronts to the north and around the corner. It has such a low profile that, while it is usually hemmed in by tour buses, the people streaming out them don't seem to notice it – they just head for the Hard Rock.

Mike Baker doesn't look disappointed. He's been running bars in Washington and Alexandria for at least 20 years. He's seen 'em all come and go, but he's a perennial. In the evening he wanders from table to table, making sure that everything is running according to his style (which, such as it is, includes the maitre d' shouting across the room to his friends at a rear table). Baker might be growing older, but his waiters haven't aged a bit – it's a young team, heavy on inexperience.

The downstairs, where the bar surrounded with plenty of floor space for a stand-up happy hour crowd and the TV competes with a turned-up sound system, is just what you'd expect of a Mike Baker grill. The waitress I've had on every visit to the bar room is Southern, talkative and opinionated, a whirlwind of efficiency who's proud of the hearty high-flavor food she serves. The booths are leathery, the tables a dark wood that looks age-toughened. The only anomaly is the fake Toulouse-Lautrecs on the walls: Their flimsy gilded frames pull away from the prints underneath, which look as if they'd been laminated on the walls. It's a pseudo-fancy touch as disconcerting as black lace stockings with sneakers.

The upstairs dining rooms make a brave attempt at formality. Two stone fireplaces remain from the building's grander history, and the walls are a handsome blue and gold. The "paintings" run to Manet and Van Gogh and the sound system is muted. Large sprays of artificial flowers and swags of blue and gold drapery – knotted and looped in odd configurations – dress up the rooms, as do royal blue candleholders on white tablecloths. Here, the most jarring note is potted plants on the tables, their leaves eaten away by some disease. And the waiter seems afraid of his job, alternating intrusive attention with long absences, perhaps because the kitchen produces courses in fits and starts.

Mike Baker's is not a place that's comfortable with niceties. It's more suited to jeans than jackets, beer than wine, a burger and a heap of fries than an Asian-fusion halibut with a flag of thyme stuck in an oversize lacy gaufrette potato. ("Just think, a potato died for this,"quipped its astonished recipient.)

The fries are great. They may be the best thing on the menu. Maybe there's a lesson: From this kitchen, the less tidy the dish, the better it's going to taste.

Let's test that theory on the appetizers. The white bean and cheddar soup is grayish and perfunctorily garnished with a wad of scallions. It's delicious, the mild bean puree sharpened by melted cheese and sparked with bits of Smithfield ham. The daily special soups also sound interesting, and the waitress boasts that the chef is a soup maestro. I almost agree when I try the blue-corn tortilla soup – an alarming color but plenty of chili spice, cheese richness and corn depth, though its texture is a bit lumpy.

A quesadilla is typically a pretty pale and unattractive dish, so here the interplay of crisp tortilla with custardy eggplant and faintly bitter radicchio, all glued together with cheese, tastes like a bonus. The fat golden onion rings with ground black beans in the batter are puffy and crisp but taste far too much of grease, as the short ribs taste of grease and salt, their coleslaw mostly of mayonnaise. Defying my theory, curried-lamb spring rolls are cute little cigar shapes agreeably stuffed with lightly curried ground meat.

Among the entrees, I could happily skip the main event and just eat the accompaniments: The mashed potatoes with crunchy bits of roasted fennel are far more savory than the unseasoned lamb shank they garnish. The fried chicken sandwich is an armored disk on a fluffy baguette, but it come with those fries. Barbecued pork is a ketchup-colored alp of shredded meat on a squishy kaiser roll, but its scallion potato salad with bacon can be great if you catch it when it's fresh. You can't fault the mussels here; they're plump and juicy. They surround a bowl of linguine and squid rings in a green pesto broth (pesto is a theme on this menu). At first the combination tastes fetchingly spicy, but it grows tiresome. The most appealing match between mainstay and side dish is salmon – grilled so its surface is crisp – with a plateful of shiitake fried rice. This combination of glossy, chewy rice with green peas, shreds of carrot and mushrooms tastes like the comforting concoction of leftovers you might stir-fry at home. The most popular dish at lunch, I'm told, is the Thai chicken wrap, vinegar-spiked chunky chicken salad bundled in a bright pinkish-orange "tortilla" that is as close to the real thing as those wall decorations are to Toulouse-Lautrecs.

A classroom of kindergartners might have invented Mike Baker's banana split. It covers a plate, a multihued swamp of little bananas – I counted eight halves – with coconut ice cream and fudge sauce, red berry sauce and, presumably mango. Ask for two spoons, or three if you can round up more people. The bread pudding tastes as if someone forgot to add the pudding, and creme brulee has a proper brulee, but the creme part has no more flavor than pudding mix. Of course: It's just too tidy to be the right thing to order here.

Mike Baker's 10th Street Grill, 518 10th St. NW. 202-347-6333. Open: For lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., for dinner Monday through Saturday 4 to 11 p.m. . Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations accepted. Separate smoking area. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.50 to $5.95, entrees $6.75 to $11.95; dinner appetizers $3.50 to $7.95, entrees $6.75 to $17.95. Full dinner with wine or beer, tax and tip $25 to $40 per person.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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