CAFE JAPONE -- 2032 P St. NW. 223-1573. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner daily 5:30 to 11 p.m.; for sushi seven days a week, lunchtime and 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. No separate non- smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.50 to $4.95, entrees $2.50 to $9.50; dinner appetizers $4.50 to $6.50, entrees $7.50 to $30. Sushi prices start at $1. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip averages about $20 to $35 per person.
There is a lot wrong with the new Cafe Japone, but people will love it anyway.
What they will love is that it is a spiffy little place, startling in its colorful use of black. Black walls and ceiling are just the beginning. The tables are black, the high-back chairs are black, the sushi bar is black. All of this is interrupted only by electric-pink neon snaking across the ceiling, neon tidbits on the windows and pink napkins on the tables.
There is entertainment, too: Japanese videos flicker silently in the corner, and the sound system plays everything from baroque to rock, from faint to blasting.
Cafe Japone is fun. It is fresh, young and cheerful, as are the waitresses. But to expect something as serious as a competent cream sauce or entrees delivered in less than an hour on a busy evening is a pipe dream.
And that just begins to explain what is wrong with Cafe Japone.
The menu is sort of Japanese and kind of French, with a full selection of sushi, teriyaki and tempura, plus dinner entrees including salmon, swordfish, seafood newburg, lobster thermidor and grilled chicken with cream sauce. Though the menu is short, it offers a lot of variety. Its prices are reasonable in some cases, staggering in others.
The European-style dishes are sheer disaster, even though they are garnished with delicious cooked carrots, potatoes and broccoli (and accompanied by a bowl of white rice with sesame seeds). Most of the European dishes are served in cream sauce, and Cafe Japone makes the worst cream sauce I have tasted since eighth- grade home ec class -- thick, floury, bland and sticky. Grilled chicken breast would have been satisfying in its juiciness had it not been asphyxiated by the sauce. Swordfish might have been all right -- it was tender enough -- but its taste was drowned in salt, then kicked in the shins by the cream sauce. And lobster thermidor was maybe the most outrageous restaurant dish of the year. A platter of that unrelenting cream sauce, this time with a skin on it, was embedded with fishy, crumbly bits of lobster, all at the inexplicable "market" price of $27.90.
Even the Japanese entrees are no better than indifferent. Tempura was limp, and its dipping sauce tasted sweetened. Pork shogayaki was hard, chewy slivers of pork in a rather pleasant ginger sauce. Beef teriyaki was the best of the lot, but even it was a thin, pale steak cooked rare but not crusty. At $11.50, it was no bargain.
So what should you order, beyond the nifty selection of beers? Appetizers and sushi bar preparations are the best of Cafe Japone. Among the appetizers, Japone canape's are cute -- four long, thin crackers topped with a variety of fish, such as pickled mackerel stuffed with salmon roe or smoked salmon with asparagus. Smoked salmon is beautifully folded into a rose shape, and its quality is fine. Even better is shrimp amakurayaki, the medium-size shrimp served hot and plump and coated in aromatic spices with a mustard bite. Beef tataki is also savory, with small slices of well-seasoned tenderloin with lemon slices interspersed for more tang. But at $6, it is a presumptuous morsel. Tempura also is served as an appetizer, but it can't stand up to the others. And sometimes there is sunomono, the Japanese seafood salad, which is here a measly concoction of fishy mackerel, fake crab, a few other seafood bits and a lot of lettuce.
The safest and most reasonable dishes on which to build a meal are the sushi variations. Sometimes Cafe Japone has some outstanding specials at the sushi bar -- sweet shrimp, for instance, served seared yet raw and accompanied by their crunchy fried heads. Or there might be fresh crab to make a much better California roll than the usual factory- made "crab legs."
The most inventive -- and perhaps most successful -- dish at Cafe Japone is sushi pizza, which is a sheet of seaweed covered with a layer of rice, then diced seafoods (salmon, octopus, shrimp and the like), and topped with a creamy, tangy sauce the waitress described as cream cheese but that tasted like a kind of hollandaise or mayonnaise. It is served on a sizzling platter with the fish barely cooked. There is also tiger eye, a real sushi bar beauty. It is a nubbin of salmon wrapped in seaweed, then wrapped in strips of other fish and enclosed in slick white squid so that when it is sliced the different fish form concentric circles in subtle color combinations.
Some days, the sushi is made by an artist who tucks a spray of cress into the seaweed ribbon that wraps the eel or dips the salmon-skin roll into sesame seeds of two different colors and arranges it sliced in double rounds. Other times the California roll falls apart on the plate.
But even the sushi menu holds some traps. At $25 and up, the platter of "chef's favorites" is madly overpriced and nothing more than a pedestrian combination of tuna, yellowtail, octopus, mackerel, shrimp, flounder and salmon roe. These basics cost more as a special platter than a similar combination you might order a la carte. If these are the chef's favorites, you can understand the problems in the kitchen. In all, though, the choice of sushi is good and the prices ($1 to $1.75 a piece, $2.50 to $4 for maki) moderate. As an added bonus, the sushi menu lists the calories per piece.
So, if you order very carefully you can eat well and reasonably. On the other hand, the risk of eating badly and expensively is high. As for service, if you hit the right moment you can be served personably and satisfactorily, but this, too, is a very shaky proposition. There are too few servers for much of a crowd, the sushi chefs are slow, and the kitchen chefs create such delays that you wonder whether Cafe Japone sends out for a cook -- or for ingredients -- with each order.
Tea usually is brought at the end of the meal. On occasion, fresh tropical fruit might be served as a gift of the house after dinner. But once I got neither tea nor fruit, and getting my bill was so delayed that I wound up standing at the cash register for at least 10 minutes trying to pay.
Cafe Japone has a good idea. We have no other Japanese-French restaurant in Washington, and the only other modern, inventive sushi bar in town is Perry's.
But it won't get rich on ideas. ::