MATISSE CAFE RESTAURANT -- 4934 WISCONSIN AVE. NW. 202-244-5222. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Closed Monday. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: lunch appetizers $5.75 to $7, entrees $8.50 to $13; dinner appetizers $5.75 to $9.75, entrees $15 to $23.50. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $45 to $60 per person.
Matisse deserves credit as the first to see the obvious: Upper Wisconsin Avenue has been desperate for a sophisticated restaurant. Not a Tex-Mex family joint, not a link in a chain, but the kind of urbane restaurant that we're finally finding in Cleveland Park. Upper Northwest is growing up.
Matisse is just the place for wearing that little black dress you bought up the street at Neiman Marcus. If the night is benign, you can lounge in it at a sidewalk table just outside the French doors. If you stay indoors, you can pose against a background of whitewashed brick and fanciful ironwork. The room's all black and white, stark and minimalist but for a swirling chandelier that looks more like a miniature spiral staircase and a real staircase that looks more like sculpture. The name of the restaurant suggests the work of a painter, whereas it actually looks more like a gallery in which his work would show well.
The interior designer knew what he was doing. Nobody else at Matisse seems to.
One Saturday night we arrive just before 7, apologetically late for our 6:30 reservation. The hostess is unforgiving. She's given away our table. Eventually she finds us another -- of sorts. We dine at a pair of high cocktail tables, our feet dangling, from drinks through dessert.
Not once during that evening did all our dishes arrive in unison; at each course, two of us had to wait up to 10 minutes after the others' had been delivered. On other visits, service was gracious and charming. Even so, three people might come to take our order, but none to remove our appetizer plates or refill our water. We might ask for a wine list and wait, then finally get two. We've had to refill our own wineglasses, and wished we could refill our own coffee cups.
When Matisse is in a good mood, it's abundantly warm and cheerful. The noise of all those conversations bouncing off the brick walls seems appropriate even if annoying. Everyone looks happy. Which makes me wonder what they're eating.
The menu is small and Mediterranean, all the dishes sounding aromatic and faintly exotic. The fried calamari comes with mint and the Moroccan herb dressing called chermoula, the vegetable pizza with robiola cheese and white truffle oil, the tomato salad with Moroccan sausage and preserved lemon. Entrees encompass the standard French mussels with tomato and white wine, rib-eye steak au poivre, and rack of lamb; then they veer into seafood couscous, tuna with honey and cumin, and lamb shank with star anise and orange. In the eating, though, the dishes taste more tame and distinctly less seductive. In fact, the best dishes are the predictable cliches.
Onion soup, for instance. It's the one dish that exceeds expectations, given that the broth tastes homemade and beefy, with a winy sweetness that's somewhat tamed by its lava field of melted cheese. Too much soggy, disintegrating bread, perhaps, but it's a heartwarming bowl. Calamari, that inevitable first course, is lightly crusted and well seasoned except for its sprinkling of herbs, which taste burned and bitter. Beets are just beets, sometimes firm-textured and tangy with marinade, other times limp and nakedly unseasoned, always with an irrelevant scooplet of goat cheese. Tomato and basil salad didn't take sufficient advantage of tomato season, though one night's special of arugula with prosciutto and fresh figs showed those three ingredients at their prime. In some dishes the seasonings are right but they don't quite make up for deficits: The Moroccan sausage tastes boiled, and the frog's legs are bland and stringy under their wonderful, fragrant tomato sauce. As for the pizza, it's not to be taken seriously. Spongy and soggy, it's topped with a swipe of cheese and slices of dry zucchini and portobellos.
Yet if you stopped at appetizers, you'd never discover the worst of Matisse. One night I watched in wonder as a woman at the next table picked her chicken's bones clean. Mine was so overcooked it was hard to cut. Sheer sawdust. Or wood before it became sawdust. And its promise of olives and preserved lemons was a sticky, sweet reduction that tasted merely irritating. In fish dishes, too, the seasonings were harsh and annoying, that sweet and acrid honey and cumin with the tuna, the anonymous "herbs and spices" with the whole snapper. I've had better luck with lamb, four perfectly good chops off the rack with an agreeable stuffed-zucchini boat and flavorful mashed potatoes, and a hearty lamb shank with not so much anise or orange that you'd notice. Couscous was infused with a pleasant harissa but far too watery, and its seafood was tasteless at best. When we left most of it uneaten, nobody asked why. But one day at lunch when we left most of our frog's legs and undersalted, dry and dreary pasta, the chef touring the dining room took a look, left and returned with a bowl of french fries. They were top-notch, and we left not a one.
Just as the onion soup does honor to its tradition, another classic, thin apple tart is a safe bet for dessert; though it's not thin, it's delicious, the apples firm and barely sweetened so that they contrast lushly with the caramel sauce and vanilla gelato. Creme brulee appears here as a layered fancy called a napoleon, congregating happily with puff pastry and strawberries. Profiteroles have been leaden, and the berry-mascarpone tart damp; to be charitable, maybe they were just stale.
The best of Matisse could be its wine list. Like the menu, it's just one page. And it's far from a grand accumulation. But it has attractive possibilities and sensible prices. I'd be glad to build a meal around the '97 Louis Latour Montagny, at $32, and there are 10 reasonably priced wines by the glass.
Then again, maybe I'll look into the Pomerols, Rhones and zinfandels, and wait for winter to build up an appetite for onion soup and lamb shank.
Yes, yes, dim lighting is romantic. But dim printing is not. It's dismaying that many restaurants don't notice when the ink on their bills and credit card receipts is so faint that even in a bright light the figures are hard to read. Such receipts make me wish I could sign them in disappearing ink.
And here's another unending problem: Complaints about noise in restaurants have become deafening. Hard surfaces, low ceilings, crammed-in tables and large groups of jovial diners can add up to misery. One diner complained he had to remove his hearing aids in order to be comfortable. Others refuse to return to restaurants they've loved because restaurateurs won't ask raucous tables to tone it down a bit. Maybe some of those cell phone calls are from one table mate to another. -- P.C.R.