Open Monday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations. Prices: Lunch main courses average $5; dinner with soup, salad and main course avereages $10. Full dinner including wine, tax and tip averages $15 to $18 a person.
If we eat in restaurants often enough and long enough, we might begin to believe that food grows on plates, unless every once in a while we touch base with a restaurant like Cafe Tatti. At Cafe Tatti food is displayed on a service table in the corner. You can see how your salad starts. You can smell the soup. You can look over the bottles of wine. And best of all, you are in full view of the tarts and cakes that the chef periodically parades out from the kitchen.
Nearly everthing looks handmade at Cafe Tatti, by skilled hands. It is a small restaurant, fewer than two dozen tables huddled together to make room for the bakery counter, which is spilling over with the same golden loaves of buttery homemade bread you are served with your dinner. Stucco walls are edged in tiles. On the tables are bright cloths, some vinyl, some calico. Flowers stand in Perrier bottles. And the menu consits of a small card handwritten with the choices for the day, usually four main courses at dinner, four hot ones and one or two cold ones at lunch.
The public day starts at 9:30 a.m. with coffee and the House's own croissants: that continues to 10:45. Lunch consists of something like salade nicoise or cold salmon, perhaps a meat or fish pie, a French beef or lamb stew, London broil, filet of sole. You can get just soup and salad for $3, and save room for a pastry. Dinner usually includes a couple of seafood dishes - filet of grouper with tiny shrimps, mussels and mushrooms; scallops in a pair of large shells, bordered with whipped potatoes. The meat dishes might be a pale, creamy fricassee of veal, roast beef, pork chops in a thick tomato sauce, or a puff pastry-wrapped concoction of ham, cheese and spinach, called a dartois.
Dinner really starts with the bread, delicate-textured and quite impossible to ignore. Then comes soup, presented in a ceramic lettuce leaf bowl. It is likely to be good soup, on warm days a smooth vichyssoise. It may not be memorable, may even be oversalted, but it rounds out the meal nicely. By now the staff in rolled-up shirtsleeves - has probably impressed you with its friendliness, and you are exchanging banter. Next comes salad, a big plate of iceberg lettuce, shredded carrots and ripe tomatoes in a light vinaigrette. Again it is not memorable, but again it is pleasant homestyle food.
The wine list, in keeping with his food, is small and modestly priced, the top being a '72 Pomerol at $12. The restaurant at one time was Portuguest; the wine list still includes a couple of Portuguese wines that are good buys.
A homestyle operation like Cafe Tatti is expected to be inconsistent. Thus, one day the dartois was soggy, heavy, filled with ham and cheese and spinach that tasted stewed into submissio . The same day, though, the trout amandine was cooked to that wonderful crisp-skinned, moist-fleshed state we seek, and covered with buttery almonds. Fish are generally good choices here, sauted over a rapid fire to turn them crisp and keep them moist. That is not meant to short-change the meat dishes, for a veal fricassee was a delicate stew made of good ingredients, and a pork chop was thick and juicy. Alongside come vegetables that go an extra measure: carrots in cream or sauteed cauliflower.
Central to a meal at Cafe Tatti, however, is dessert. Long, whipped cream-edged tarts and round, almong-trimmed tarts issue regularly from the kitchen. The waiter recites a litany of pear, apricot, strawberry, almond, and then goes on to the cakes. The tarts are precise, beautiful. And, while they are flawed with soggy undercrusts and some gelatinous glazes, they are a leap ahead of most Washington pastries. The ground almond fillings are the finest touches of these pastries, so try an almond tart or a strawberry tart with a layer of almond. Cakes, layered with smooth butter creams, are also good. And the espresso achieves a quality worthy of the array of desserts.
Cafe Tatti fixes itself in your good graces with small touches. The fact candles, illuminating the walls, the plates with black and red roosters, the bar stocked with French aperitifs like Lillet, such are the little pleasures that add up to a restaurant tantalizing even beyond the success of one particular dish or another. And, to keep you until your next visit, you can buy a loaf of the bread that started your meal. For $1, it makes a souvenir that means more the morning after than would a long-stemmed rose.