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Cheap and Chic: Cafe Ole

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 1998

  Richman Review

Turning Tables
With vacation behind you and winter ahead, there's all the more excuse for making lunch time an escape. Ching Ching Cha is just that. It's a Japanese tearoom in Georgetown, on Wisconsin Avenue below M Street, a surprise of spaciousness, beautiful details and sunshine from a large skylight. Tables and chairs are gleaming rosewood with mother-of-pearl inlays, and you can opt to sit Japanese-style, at low tables with pillows instead of chairs. Along with the teas – some rare and costing $12 to $20 a pot, others a more modest $4 – you get a lesson in brewing and a charming array of utensils.

You can also lunch lightly, on just a dish of wonderful crunchy five-spice peanuts, a single delicious tea-and-spice boiled egg, perhaps a small pastry. There's a handsome "tea meal," for $10, of miso soup and a lacquered tray of three tangy dressed cold vegetables, rice, a tiny salad and morsels of either soy-ginger chicken, shrimp with wasabi potato salad or steamed teriyaki-sauced tofu. Ching Ching Cha is open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. The difficulty is reentering the jarring outside world after such a serene interlude.

At Jacques Van Staden's last steady job – as executive sous-chef at Lespinasse – the appetizers alone cost as much as $23. At his new restaurant, Cafe Ole, you'd be hard-pressed to spend that much for a full dinner – with a glass of wine. In fact, the wines, which were chosen by his friend Vincent Ferraud, sommelier at Lespinasse, are rarely more than $21 a bottle.

Cafe Ole is not just at the other end of the price scale from Van Staden's usual haunts (he's worked at Citronelle and Jean-Louis, too). It's also as casual as they are formal. There's not a necktie in the house, unless some diner has come right from work. There's nothing upholstered or linen-covered. And there are only a handful of items that could properly be called entrees. The menu is mostly mezze – small dishes like tapas – and sandwiches, with a wine and cheese bar, an espresso bar and smoothies. There's not even a waiter, merely a runner who brings your food to your table after you've ordered it at the counter.

At first glance, Cafe Ole seems like another cookie-cutter fast-food snacks-and-wraps place. It looks predictable, though handy to have around the corner from a movie theater, in its bland brick-and-glass Tenleytown neighborhood. And the roll-up sandwiches, like world-traveled burritos wrapped in Middle Eastern lavash, bear out one's limited expectations. Even the sandwiches made with grilled flat bread are silly mishmashes (a paella sandwich?). The heartier salads, too, are served in stiff bread cones that make them look like something created by Disney. After you've tried one, you're likely to order your next salad flat on a plate.

But something far more interesting is happening at Cafe Ole, in the dining room as well as the kitchen.

The bar has that convivial feel of an authentic wine bar: People seem to be there for tasting and conversing rather than hard drinking. And Cafe Ole tends to draw restaurant pals of Van Staden and his partner, Ziad Maalouf, formerly of Lespinasse's Carlton Hotel. Even better, alongside the restaurant is a large covered pavilion that – despite its view of the sterile brick post office across the street – makes a pleasant outdoor urban lounge. Cafe Ole is a place that's creating its own environment.

The food plays a significant part. At dinner, the cold mezze are served in cobalt porcelain dishes, hot ones in shallow clay pots. Once your table is covered by half a dozen or more of these and your wine has been poured into stubby footed glasses, Tenleytown seems much closer to the Mediterranean.

Bright colors, hard edges, intrusive music and self-service aren't usually accompanied by such luscious little salads, with such high-quality produce, and such skilled and bold seasoning. The soujouk salad is like none I've tasted: crisp ribbons of spiced sausage tossed with bits of pickled turnip and peppers, onion, parsley, garlic and flakes of crisped pita. Shankleesh is a dice of ripe tomatoes made wildly delicious with creamy sheep's cheese and a tingle of such seasonings as sumac and red onion. These are small dishes, but they have such flavorful impact that they leave you satisfied well before you're stuffed.

Of the mezze I've tried from the list of 31, I like the cold ones best. The hummus has guts. The panzanella is that irresistible mix of good tomatoes with basil, garlic and cubes of toasted bread infused with olive oil. Calamari is shaved so thin you might not recognize it in a mix of tapenade, pine nuts, olives and pickled beets. Toscana salata has bits of mortadella, artichoke and olives tossed with silky orzo in a lemon aioli. French, Italian, Greek – a little of everything is in this one little dish. Others are more North African (oddly sweet lamb tagine, concoctions of preserved lemon) or French (a pâté, a tapenade) or Israeli (couscous), even Spanish (paella). These foods have big flavors, well suited to small portions and to slow nibbling.

The hot mezze are less refined. The paella is stripped to its essentials, and its shellfish is not top quality, though it's better than you'd expect for $4.25. Chicken dishes are made of shreds or strips, combined with vegetables or bulgur – mild and less distinct than the cold preparations. In sandwiches, these hot mixtures are too goopy, particularly the starchy ones; they work better alone as mezze. Most savory is the polenta with grilled mushrooms, caramelized onions, garlic and truffle oil.

Desserts are showy sweets: chocolate-covered strawberries on a stick, chocolate-wrapped tartlets, tortes and eclairs. Their chocolate is somewhat waxy, though not as disappointing as the big cookies, which taste as if they'd come from a mix. Giant brownies are achingly sweet and sometimes stale. This is a kitchen that accomplishes more with subtlety than with extravagance.

My experience with the desserts tempts me to end dinner with an after-dinner drink from the well-stocked bar. The coffee is awfully good, too. Then again, the menu offers steamed milk and honey – for $1.50. What a sweet idea.

Cafe Ole – 4000 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202/244-1330. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 4 to 10 p.m., Friday 4 p.m. to midnight, Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight, Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted for eight or more. Smoking on patio only. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.25 to $3.75, entrees $4.95 to $6.95; dinner appetizers $2.25 to $5.50, entrees $5.25 to $12.50. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $20 per person

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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