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The Eyes Have It

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 7, 1999

  Richman Review

Turning Tables
I'd get there at noon if I were aiming for the buffet lunch at the Franklin Exchange, at 14th and K streets NW. Otherwise I'd look for a crowded day. The reason is that when this food is fresh from the kitchen, it's quite a deal. But its high quality dissipates fast under those handsome copper covers. Franklin Exchange, new last fall, is large, comfortable and quiet enough to make it a good choice for serious conversation. The $12.95 weekday lunch buffet features a house-made soup and an array of fresh, bright salads such as cucumbers with dill, tomato-mozzarella, sesame noodles, chicken vinaigrette and sweet, juicy melon slices. Trouble creeps in at the hot food section. The duck may start out succulent and crisp, but it quickly grows soggy. Rotisserie chicken turns stiff, moist fresh salmon with capers becomes a bit dry and fishy, and pepper chicken loses its savor. Roasted potatoes and green vegetables evolve into mush. For dessert you can choose from a tray of French pastries, though after this substantial buffet, the slices of melon look more appropriate.
– P.C.R.
Americans are so obsessed with dieting that I've long imagined the restaurant of the future as one where the waiter would bring food for you to look at and to smell, then whisper in your ear its calorie count and remove the plate, untouched, from your table.

Le Tarbouche could be the prototype. Not that the food here is particularly fattening, but it is so beautiful that most of its satisfaction is visual. And if you never tasted it, you'd leave thinking it was more delicious than it actually is.

This new Lebanese-French restaurant doesn't make much of an impression at first. Beyond the entrance, which looks like an office lobby, is a long corridor with wine racks behind glass walls, narrow booths and a grand bar. Then, at the rear the vista makes you catch your breath. The dining room is spacious, dignified and simply stunning. The walls are striped with what seems to be linen and ridged stone, and their ocher hue turns pink under the spotlights. The shallow domed ceiling glows a blue that looks like an electrified Mediterranean sea by day, a sky by night. Three-dimensional decorations high on the walls are, upon closer inspection, fezzes-or tarbouches, in case you were wondering about the restaurant's name. Marble floors and woven chairs create the feel of a seaside terrace. At Le Tarbouche, no stone is left unpolished.

"This is going to be glorious," you think when you're presented with a basket of breads including small puffy house-made pitas. Sure, they're a little sweet and oddly flavorless, but they're adorable. And they're a useful base for the zestful black olive paste that comes alongside.

The wine list also shows ambition. You'd expect to find a few Lebanese and a lot of French wines here, but there is also a solid selection of American wines by the glass or the half or whole bottle. An Oregon pinot noir with tabbouleh and hummus? It works.

Le Tarbouche is setting fashion standards. So it doesn't offer just hummus and baba ghanouj, but also avocado and beet purees with tahini. Then it proposes them as a combination: red, green, beige and gray, piped into four braids with a sprinkling of dark red sumac at each end and a fluff of mache and shredded radish in the center, on a thick glass square that looks like a slab of ice. Smashing. How does it taste? Like baby food, smooth and safely mild. Smoked salmon is equally gorgeous, the sheer slices edged in sumac and gathered like fallen leaves on the plate. And a fettoush salad is built on a layer of cheese sliced so thin that at first glance you think it's a translucent sauce. In the presence of these imaginative plates, you might just want to sip your wine and contemplate the creative spirit.

But what appetizer would you order if you dined blindfolded? Not the grape leaves filled with crunchy and gummy truffled risotto under a coverlet of baked crisp cheese (the flavors are at war). Nor the dense, dry and oversalted falafel. The tiny fat sausages – ma'anek au soujok – are spicy and pleasantly flecked with crisped garlic and sharp olives, but they are soft and steamy rather than crusty. Asparagus is painstakingly peeled and sparkling with a tomato vinaigrette, but paying $9.95 for it goes against my grain. Similarly, an appetizer special of foie gras, even with all those peeled grapes, is an outlandish $18, given that the thin slice of duck liver is made to look more substantial by a pedestal of mushrooms. Tabbouleh is the best bet I've found, a refreshing grainy salad made sprightly with lemon, lime and mint.

Or maybe I'd go right on to entrees. Salmon at lunch, its skin gleaming red from a rub of spices and sprinkled with hazelnuts, is cooked perfectly, so that it's just barely jelled at the center. The spices may have a raw harshness and the sauce may be viscous and jarring, but the crunch of skin and hazelnuts against the melting softness of flesh is irresistible. What's more, the accompanying couscous is a neat trick, a tall and perfect pylon of grains.

The sauces are the entrees' weakness. Rack of lamb is absolutely delicious meat, but it's drenched in vinegary sweetness. Duck breast comes with a savory beggar's purse of diced duck confit in phyllo – a modern bastilla – and is scrumptious on its own with its thin rim of crunchy skin, but its flavor is lost unless you scrape off the cloying date-cardamom sauce. Cod and swordfish have been ideally moist and seemingly fresh, though their flavors are buried under sweetness or saltiness or puckery acid. And shrimp is worthy of a magazine cover, with its red-spice rub and its baby vegetables tumbling out of a filmy pastry cup edged in sumac. But is that ketchup I taste on the shrimp? The menu claims sun-dried tomatoes, but it might as well be Heinz.

It's a relief to find that the desserts' beauty goes more than skin deep, at least if you order chocolate. Triangles of chocolate ganache are studded with crunchy dried star fruit and set on a hazelnut pastry that disappears on your tongue. A molten chocolate cake pours out bittersweet elixir when you cut into it – like a hot fudge sundae that doesn't bother with the ice cream. Yet in other desserts, art again triumphs over flavor. A napoleon made with a disk of kadaif pastry and stripes of caramel is cunning, but its custard is starchy. Sauce paintings in red and green are little masterpieces, but that green mint has a tendency to conquer any other taste, especially in a dish so mild as rice pudding.

So if you eat with your eyes, Le Tarbouche is the restaurant of your dreams. Otherwise, at least ask for the sauce on the side.

Le Tarbouche – 1801 K St. NW. 202/331-5551. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar only. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.95 to $9.50, entrees $12.50 to $17.50; dinner appetizers $4.95 to $11.50, entrees $17.95 to $26. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $50 to $75 per person.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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