OKAY, CHLOE can cook. The question is, for whom does la belle toll?
Chloe is a weird question mark even in Adams Morgan trend-dom. Endearing, eager to please and sometimes remarkably successful, but a curious limbo nevertheless.
A cosmo girl bar cum boys' club cum dance hall, Chloe nearly forgets to style itself a restaurant, so eager is it to be all things to all people. Between happy hour and darkness, the crowd switches abruptly from downtowners in summer-biz casual and the gracefully graying denizens who held out on Kalorama through the bad times to baby-faced ID flashers wearing black to attract, from first blush to breathless Hush (the Thursday night all-you-can-drink for $10 gay wow). The few adult diners who brave the unpromising climb to the terrace can't help but feel that their time upon this roof is short, an uncertainty that the sweet-tempered staff's slightly too-timely attentions may exacerbate. (It's not meant to be ungracious, it's just a generational thing: The over-30s were raised to drink more slowly, while the twenty-somethings collect colored drink glasses like charity rubber wristbands.)
The two-level space -- the second and third floors above its sibling, Saki Asian Grill -- is clearly designed more for the non-dining crowd. An effectively brash and sassy version of that ironically "unfinished" concrete chic and architectural-elemental minimalism, Chloe is attired (where at all) in glass blocks and translucent teals and the odd flash of cold, muscular steel. At night, the wavy windows and pastel-dream downlights give it a fluid backdrop, as if the aurora borealis were reflected into curtains. It has a VIP area (that gets you table service), a DJ "booth" like a floating UFO, a sinuous open stairway between the two bar levels, lofty air space -- it's so chill it could kill.
On the other hand, the cooking, under executive chef John Schumacher, is way more than minimal. His version of the classic steak salad is among Washington's best, exactly the way you'd make it for yourself: a mix of greens and baby spinach, a fling of roasted red peppers and grilled onions, a restrained studding of gorgonzola and a full serving of marinated flank steak, cooked to order and correctly sliced on the bias (a nicety too many cooks don't seem to have learned). Even the vinaigrette had been reblended before being added (another nice detail), and at $11, it rides high on the hit list.
The jumbo lump cocktail, also $11, is not only a decadent indulgence but an elegant sneer at simple-minded "martini" pretenders and their flavor coverups: It's a large ramekin of fresh lump crabmeat topped with a first-rate homemade mayonnaise just flinted with a little mustard. The bowl o' mussels, served with a hearty cone of frites and not-too-garlicky mayo, is another careful version of an often casual dish; and the fries, one version of several out of the kitchen, are crisp and assured.
The grilled salmon with its teriyaki-sauced veggies is cooked as requested and the stir-fried veggies generous (the sauce maybe a bit too much so). Unfrilly roast chicken is one of those things everybody talks about and almost nobody does well. Even the duck bruschetta, good French bread ovals dry-toasted and topped with a sweet-sour pull, has a confident crackle.
So it's not that Chloe's kitchen isn't worth the time. It's just that from its rope-queue door, and its we-cool decor, dinner seems long to go and far away.
Schumacher's background is in corporate cooking, and his flexibility is obvious from the menu: a little Cape Cod, a bit of North Carolina, some relatively reliable fusion: shrimp and rapini pasta, Asian-flavored salmon, barbecued ribs, filets with horseradish mash and so on. But the kitchen still seems to be shaking down. The steak bits appetizer is generous, but a little chewy and overly teriyaki'd. Charred vegetable nachos are more interesting than some, thanks primarily to the roasted tomato salsa, although at least one night the tomatoes amounted to most of the titular veggies.
There are other flaws: Rice is stodgy -- a strange failing for a kitchen that is also supporting a sushi bar -- but a side of wild rice was quite good. The bread is frequently underbaked, the crab cakes (at $19, the most expensive thing on the menu) are far less interesting than the cocktail, their crumbs neither quite soft inside nor quite crisp outside; and though a duck breast was delivered rare as requested, its skin side was flabby and clearly undefiled by iron. And even if the potatoes are differently cooked or seasoned -- with Old Bay, garlic mayo, goat cheese, Parmesan, horseradish -- seeing them listed with all but a couple of dishes casts a sort of pall even before they're eaten.
Still, Chloe's food is better than a lot of its neighbors. It's just in an identity crisis. The menu is more than bar fare; in fact it even has the not-unwelcome sound of "mature" standards in a neighborhood where the middle-aged and ethnically exhausted may feel they're an endangered species. But everything about the restaurant's style says "pre-theater," and it makes some patrons feel they need to get their show on the road before the kids come in.
So: Guess who's coming to dinner? Chloe may have to decide: Is it a meal? Or is it the mix?