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Overshooting the Mark

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 1998

  Richman Review

These are glory days for Seventh Street. Within a few blocks of MCI Center, bars, pubs, taverns and watering holes have been opening, old restaurants have been revamping, and now the Mark, a showy and stylish eclectic American restaurant, has opened at the corner of D Street, bringing chef Alison Swope back to the city.

Turning Tables

A tidal wave has hit Provence. The entire kitchen staff of Pennsylvania Avenue's much-celebrated French restaurant suddenly departed, along with chef Yannick Cam, several weeks ago. Cam split up with his business partner, Savino Recine, and installed himself in one of their other restaurants, El Catalan. The fate of the partnership's third restaurant, Coco Loco, was left unresolved. In fact, everything sounds unresolved. Litigation is coming, both partners promised.

Meanwhile, Recine hired a new chef for Provence: Rene Kerdranvat, from the Atlanta restaurant Nikolai's Roof. Recine found him with the help of Jean-Louis Palladin, for whom Kerdranvat once worked in Washington. Said Recine, "Jean-Louis' soul and his spirit are back in town. His touch is here."

Unfortunately, Jean-Louis himself isn't. Rumors were rampant that Palladin would leave Napa, the Las Vegas restaurant where he's been cooking since last year, and take over the kitchen at Provence. Not true. Palladin said he briefly considered Provence's offer, but decided against it. Instead, he said, he was – once again – on the verge of signing a contract for a magnificent Manhattan location, and would be commuting monthly to Vegas.


Swope was one of the early chefs at New Heights before she departed for Alexandria – first to Santa Fe East, then Stella's. Her cooking has always been adventurous and perhaps too trendy; even now her dishes often sound heavenly yet taste earthbound. But she returns with a new measure of restraint and maturity.

Restrained? Mature? I mean the cooking, not the dining rooms. The Mark is hot, it's cool, it's hip. It's sweeps of curving walls painted icy emerald and fiery mustard. It's stalactite lanterns throwing reds, blues, yellows and greens on backdrops of gray suede. On the tables – chilly marble without cloths – are napkin rings of brushed metal with amber knobs that look like something about to orbit. A few tables in the front bar are scrunched into spaces that bring to mind Metro at rush hour, but at the far reaches are banquettes as quiet and comfortable as a business-class upgrade.

In these early days, the Mark has shown two faces: One featured a lost reservation, dismissive treatment, a waiter so hesitant that when he brought dessert to our totally cleared table, he asked whether we needed utensils. I saw the Mark's friendlier aspect, though, when the complaints of two nearby lunchers about a sandwich brought concern, apologies and not only a new plate but an insistence that the lunch be on the house. Some waiters seem novices, while others are clearly old-timers.

Swope goes to great efforts to muster resources that make a difference. The wine list, remarkably informative and inspired, as well as reasonable, gives credit to consultant Ann Berta of Georgetown's Wide World of Wines. The bread – in addition to house-made corn muffins – is the crustiest country loaf: It's from Uptown Bakery, the waiter says. The ever-changing menu features Copper River salmon, fiddlehead ferns, Summerfield Farm beef, and feta cheese from Cedar Acres in Delaware. Like most New American chefs, Swope roams a whole world of flavors for wasabi to spike the tuna carpaccio, tamarind to jazz up the rock shrimp, coconut and green chili curry to spoon over the scallops, a chile relleno to form the centerpiece of a vegetarian plate. She has a particular affinity for Southwestern accents – red chili butter sauce on salmon, ancho chilies marinating the venison. And she slips into a Southern vernacular with side dishes of smoked corn pudding, garlic grits, a buttermilk biscuit or fried green tomatoes.

Swope is at her best when the tone is down-home. She's invented a marvelous appetizer baklava of sliced portobellos and feta that looks like a slab of lasagna but uses phyllo instead of noodles. Her lamb sausage is leaner than most, seasoned with restraint and studded with tart dried cherries. Her corn chowder with andouille is mild and pleasant, and the repertoire of two daily soups includes other homey offerings such as chicken and barley, lentil or black bean. Other appetizers are predictable: Tempura-fried calamari has a crisp and puffy yet greasy crust surrounding tender squid rings; it doesn't need the added oil of its red chili aioli, but happily it's garnished with purple olives, marinated tomatoes and baby greens. House-smoked salmon is mild, agreeable and made more delicious by an orange-fennel salad, but it is sodden with olive oil.

The buttery, oily excess is a theme that continues through to dessert, where gingery rice pudding with blueberries would be sensational if it weren't sputtering under a pool of melted butter. And at Sunday brunch, the imaginative apple walnut bread-pudding "french toast" is custardy and luscious, with its dried fruit and caramel crustiness, but is drowning in butter.

Like an overhyped movie, the Mark's menu encourages us to expect too much. The lamb chops are good lean meat, cut double thick, but the promising pinot noir glaze is overreduced, a letdown; and those fiddlehead ferns are just raw enough to retain their harsh grassy taste. The best accompaniment is the baseball-size potato puffs sparked with Asiago cheese. Grilled tuna is cooked perfectly rare but would benefit from a hotter fire to sear it. The thinly sliced cepes that come with it haven't much flavor, and the saffron risotto is gluey. Less of these side dishes would be more. The same problem afflicts a chunk of soy-sauced Chilean sea bass, disrupted by a gummy Israeli couscous.

If the rice pudding were drained of butter, desserts would be the most consistent stars here. A mocha pot de creme is dark velvet, intense with coffee. A wedge of chocolate hazelnut tart is crunchy from its nut filling straight through to its cookie crust, and lashed with chocolate and caramel that tempts you to swipe up the last smears with your fingers. Simple strawberries are royalty with a drift of lemon mascarpone cream.

Whatever you do here, don't fill up before dessert.

THE MARK – 401 SEVENTH ST. NW. 202/783-3133. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for light fare Monday through Friday 3 to 5 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate smoking area. Prices: appetizers $4 to $8.50; lunch entrees $7.25 to $14; dinner entrees $13 to $25. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $35 to $65 per person.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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