SOME YEARS ago, I asked the then-charge d'affaires of the Lebanese Embassy where I could have a really first-class Lebanese meal. He took me to Petitto's, the venerable pasta palace in Woodley Park -- and introduced me to the Lebanese chef. For those in the know, there it was -- Middle Eastern meals as good as the Italian. Similarly, there used to be a Japanese restaurant in Dupont Circle called Tokyo, back before it was considered quite polite to prepare Japanese cuisine if you were really Korean; but if you were courteous, and if you came a couple of times to establish your sincere interest, you could sometimes persuade the kitchen to given you a taste of home -- of what was then really hard-to-find ethnic Korean fare.
Washington is such a melting pot of restaurants and cooks that we shouldn't really be surprised when the man or woman beneath the toque speaks with a different accent than the menu. And occasionally, a little whiff of homestyle stuff wafts out of the kitchen. But you may have to know the passwords to get in on the secret stuff.
Now that Jacques Van Staden has taken over head chef duties at Aquarelle (in the Watergate Hotel; 202/298-4455), he's put his own (albeit classic) stamp on the continental menu; but for old friends who know and love the South African native's potjie kos, his "pot foods" -- layered braised stews prepared in a traditional three-legged cast-iron pot that Van Staden calls his country's comfort foods -- he will make a seafood stew or even, as he did the other night, an ostrich version. He just asks for 24 hours' advance notice. And he's reestablishing the chef's exhibition table in the kitchen, which tends to draw the sort of party that asks for something special, so there may be more South African offerings in the future.
Saveur (2218 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202/333-5885) is the fourth venue for chef-owner Keo Kountakoun (he worked at Cleveland Park's Lavandou for many years before opening Gaithersburg's Le Paradis and then Vienna's La Provence) and the most broadly modern-eclectic of the four; but with a few day's notice, he would be willing to make something from his Laotian homeland.
Everyone thinks of steaks and lobsters when they think of the Palm (1225 19th St. NW; 202/293-9091); but chef Sang Ek is Thai, and you can probably tell by perusing the daily specials, which nearly always include items such as Thai-style soft-shelled crabs, chicken with bamboo shoots and Thai shrimp curry as well as that lovely grilled calamari.
Although Tahoga chef James Reppuhn is not himself Chinese, he last cooked for the Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai and has added a few Asian fillips (he's guest-chefing in Thailand at the moment) to the Georgetown restaurant's already popular modern-American menu (2815 M St. NW; 202/338-5380). And although no one has yet thought to ask for a Ritzy Chinese special, with a little advance notice (and ingredient feasibility), you could be the first.
The four-fisted team of Ruben and Rene at Polly's Cafe in the New-U neighborhood (1342 U St. NW; 202/265-8385) tends to toss out a little French, a little seafood and a little pasta with those burgers; but if you want to make sure to get in on their home-style El Salvadoran stuff, better call ahead.
So who's on the flip side? Chef Jeffrey Buben of Bis (15 E St. NW; 202/661-2700), who is cheerfully willing to enhance his French bistro menu by whipping up a batch of his old Vidalia signature shrimp and grits. Just give him time to simmer the grits, or call ahead.
JUST DESSERTS: Now that Washingtonians are spoiled about breads and expect first-rate pastries and rolls and loaves and layers, it's time that area bakers got their share of the credit that is so often limited to head chefs. "Creme de la Creme: A Bakers' Extravaganza," a demonstration/exhibition/tasting of edible wares, was conceived by 1789 chef Ris Lacoste as a way of recognizing a group of professionals who are usually stuck in the back room but whose work is an integral part of a successful restaurant experience. Some three dozen -- more like three baker's dozens -- of the area's most illustrious pastry chefs, teachers and bakers will show off their technique and their artworks Oct. 4 at the Westin Grand Hotel at 24th and M streets NW; call 202/333-0421 to reserve tickets ($45).
AND NO DISHPAN HANDS: A trend-watcher group asked me recently for ideas about possible future fads, and I mentioned the return of the semiformal dinner party, only catered or set up in a restaurant's private room. Well, here's an even more likely version of the entertain-without-effort movement: You can rent an entire restaurant, turn over your family recipes, put a chef's jacket over your tux or take up the bartending duties in high style. This "fantasy restaurant" opportunity is offered by Cafe Ole, the charming little mezze deli/wine bar in Tenleytown (4000 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202/244-1330). For $20 to $30 a head, you can fete up to 30 friends, pick from their menu or design your own, pick the wines and leave the shopping, chopping and chilling to them. And you won't even have to wash the dishes -- unless you forget your wallet.