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In the Moods

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 1998

  Richman Review

Turning Tables
For Washington restaurants, this summer has been one long game of musical chairs. Lespinasse will reopen September 9 without chef Troy Dupuy; new chef Sandro Gamba, 28, arrives from France in October. Gamba, who worked with such illuminati as Alain Ducasse, Joel Robuchon and Roger Verge, earned a Michelin star at the Chateau de Lignan.

In case you've lost track, here's a roundup of other comings and goings. Pesce's David Craig has gone to the Tabard Inn, and Justin Nielsen has moved to Pesce after three years at the Danish Embassy. The chef from Nora, John Wabeck, has decamped to New Heights, replaced at Nora by Jeffrey Olsson of Red Sage. Brian Hooyenga, who was the first chef at Tahoga, is now at Alexandria's Evening Star Café. At Sushi-Ko, the new chef is actually its old chef, Tetsuro Takanashi, who returned from Japan and shares the kitchen with Duncan Boyd. And Provence, which lost chef Yannick Cam in an ownership battle and hasn't yet settled on a permanent replacement, is likely to turn Italian.
– P.C.R.

Don't try to squeeze salmon tartare out of a meatloaf-and-mashed-potatoes-kind of chef. Mike Soper is a legend hereabouts for his inspired menus at Union Street Public House and Southside 815, both in Alexandria, and many more restaurants over the years. But the things he's always done best are those that you dream of eating in Mom's kitchen on a winter afternoon. Things piled with mashed potatoes and buried in cream gravy. Foods that look a mess but are as soothing as an old quilt.

At Soper's new restaurant in downtown Washington, he's cooking for a white-tablecloth, jacket-and-tie clientele. The dining rooms and two bars on five levels are outfitted with high-backed chairs and flowered carpeting. They're spacious and quiet, as proper as a hotel dining room. Thus, Soper's is distinctly more comfortable than the usual hard-surfaced and hip new restaurant. And it's worlds away from King Street Blues, Gulf Coast Kitchen and George Starke's Head Hog BBQ, which are also on Soper's resume.

The problem with Chef Soper – the historical and habitual problem – is that his food is incomprehensibly inconsistent. Just plain moody.

Dinner here starts with a basket of assorted breads that shows how hard he's trying. The onion rolls may be better than the little jalapeno muffins, but it's nice to have both. Even nicer, dinner is preceded by a tray of relishes – bread-and-butter pickles, peppery marinated mushrooms, chunks of orange-flavored beets and an eggplant paste. It's a generous, old-fashioned touch.

Then Soper gets fashionable. His Land & Sea Carpaccio is thin slices of seared yet raw beef and tuna, touched up with a slightly sweet creamy dressing, a light and refreshing start. You'd expect salmon tartare to be equally invigorating, but mine was more like overcured seviche, so long marinated that it was chewy and puckeringly sour. And I thought I'd never meet a tartare I didn't like. Conch puppies – chewy little fritters with rubbery bits of conch – are pretty good if you think of them as slightly fishy hush puppies, and they're a fine excuse to sample the fresh mango chutney.

Crab-u-cino turns out to be a soup every bit as weird as its name, a broth of thick and starchy texture with a foamy topping. Wade through its cuteness, though, and you'll find it tastes vaguely akin to a lobster bisque. I've had much better luck with the daily special soups. A seafood chowder was a sensational vegetable soup, chunky and flavorful with fresh, lightly cooked carrots, beans, corn, potatoes and even sweet potatoes, plus bits of various fish and scallops. Another day, clam chowder was glistening and creamy, thick and chock-full of potatoes and clams.

The most distinctive appetizer is callaloo-stuffed shrimp – available as a "small plate," or light entree, at lunch. It's Soper's kind of reinvented soul food, the shrimp and greens nestled on a big, moist corn griddlecake.

Those corn griddlecakes are the key. They show up in the Pinebark Stack, the best of the dinner entrees. It's a massive construction of seared swordfish layered with rough-textured cheddar mashed potatoes and drenched in oyster cream gravy. At lunch, it appears as the Eastern Shore Stack, with chicken breast instead of the swordfish, and crab gravy plus some leaf spinach. I hope I just hit a bad day: I had to set aside the chicken, as it was rigid and bitter. But the rest was as comforting as a bedtime story.

Such menu poetry: Braised salmon becomes a Nova Scotia Pot Roast. It's not paella here, it's Barcelona to Brooklyn Paella. The lunch menu makes you want to pull out your calendar to note that Monday is chicken and dumplings day, Thursday roast turkey with dressing and roast vegetable mash, Friday braised veal shank. The lunch-time salads include sliced steak or grilled scallops, while the sandwiches run to Cuban pork, a house-made vegetable burger or a classic New Orleans oyster peacemaker. Even the ketchup for the Black Angus burger, the menu boasts, is made from scratch.

Small plates at lunch encompass jerk chicken drumettes and hangtown fry, though the latter is merely an unseasoned omelet topped with a few oysters. Fortunately, it comes with a moist and crisp-edged potato cake. What goes the extra mile on the lunch list is the Cuban pork po' boy, because its toasted roll, though spongy, is piled with soft and spicy hunks of irresistible roast pork.

Dinner hasn't half the gutsy stuff that the lunch menu offers. Its attempted elegance dictates veal and beef steaks, a dry and chewy rack of pork and a New Bedford Skillet of tough pork medallion with a few scallops and clams, all showered with a bacon-dominated wine sauce. Furthermore, that light and crusty potato cake I tried at lunch inexplicably turned as dense as turkey stuffing at dinner.

Desserts recapture Soper's talent for homeyness. The fruit cobblers arrive hot and oozing not-too-sweetened berries under a bit of crunch. Lime meringue pie is also as tart as you'd wish, the thick, dense custard piled high with meringue in a good buttery, crumbly crust. Strawberry shortcake is appropriately profligate with berries and whipped cream, and chocolate banana won tons look not at all exotic, just like a kind of deconstructed banana split, though with the bananas fried in a crust.

Soper's is a compromise. Its dining room has all the personality of a Marriott lobby, but it's mighty comfortable. The cooking is hit or miss, and the thing to remember is that the best of the dishes are ugly and mushy. But when Soper's works, it's downright therapeutic – emotionally, if not nutritionally.

Soper's On M – 1813 M St. NW. 202-463-4590. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 5 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: appetizers $4 to $8; lunch entrees $6 to $12; dinner entrees $13 to $19. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $35 to $45 per person.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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