** (2 stars) W Domku Bar & Cafe
821 Upshur St. NW (near Eighth Street). 202-722-7475
Open: Tuesday and Wednesday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; breakfast available Thursday and Friday 8 to 11 a.m., Saturday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. MC, V. No reservations. Smoking permitted. Metro: Georgia Ave. Prices: appetizers $3.50 to $8.50, entrees $6 to $17. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $35 per person.
* (1 star) Leopold's Kafe & Konditorei
3315 Cady's Alley NW (off M Street). 202-965-6005
Open: Tuesday and Wednesday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. All major credit cards. No reservations. Smoking permitted. Metro: Rosslyn. Prices: appetizers $4.50 to $11, entrees $7.50 to $21. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $65 per person.
Washington recently welcomed two restaurants that add something different to the soup of local flavors. One touts cooking that bridges Scandinavia and Eastern Europe; the other delivers a slice of Austria, hold the Gemutlichkeit.
"I didn't know she was opening a restaurant, and she didn't know I was a chef."
Eric Evans is recalling how he met his current boss, Kera Carpenter, at a neighborhood meeting more than a year ago. Carpenter, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Poland, was interested in opening a restaurant in the District's Takoma area, and Evans, a stranger, had come to support her request for a liquor license. Months later, the two ended up joining forces, transferring her concept to Petworth and broadening it with some of his input.
For Evans, W Domku, which loosely translates from Polish as "in the little house," is a bit of a homecoming. "I was born in Petworth!" he says with relish. The food he is making these days is pretty familiar to him, too, though his last cooking job was completely different, at the defunct downtown steakhouse Jordans. When Evans was a youngster, his parents sent him on chaperoned trips to Norway, Denmark and Sweden, he explains. "They thought it was a better education." Good call, I think to myself when my order of meatballs is placed before me. Soft, soothing and draped with a light gravy, they get a splash of color from some bright red lingonberries.
Pow! For those who choose to drink aquavit, the liquor so potent it brings to mind liquid barbed wire, dinner begins with a bang. The clear vodka is infused with the likes of caraway, rose petal, dill, vanilla, red chili or -- my favorite -- lemon grass and ginger, and offered by the shot or a flight (three glasses) for $16.
Aquavit turns out to be a nice foil to the subtle flavors on the small menu, whether beet soup or a serving of sprats, silvery baby herring eaten with rye crisp, sweet mustard, chopped onion, capers and gherkins. The potato-and-bacon-filled dumplings known as pirogi are tame but tasty, their tops slicked with sour cream. A pink slab of smooth pate, ringed in gently sweet aspic, would look at home on an elegant buffet; a couple of plump browned sausages on carrot-laced sauerkraut prove homey and strapping. Of the sandwiches, I'm most drawn to crawfish, fennel and bell peppers bound in lemony mayonnaise and tucked inside a baguette.
Domku has the casual feel of a community center, with mismatched couches and chairs, a small bar, even a game room in the rear, replete with pool table. And on Wednesday evenings, the bill of fare extends to live music. "I wanted a homelike environment," Carpenter says. Her neighbors will find just that.
Wanted: Inexperienced servers to barely go through the motions of waiting on customers in a chic new restaurant in Georgetown. Common sense not required. Apply in person to the clueless mannequin on duty.
That's the call I imagine the owners of Leopold's Kafe & Konditorei put out when they were assembling a dining room staff before the restaurant's launch in March. I realize the talent pool for good help in Washington is shallow, but Leopold's appears to be looking for its employees in a bird bath.
It takes real skill for three staff members to circle a dining room without ever making eye contact with patrons trying to order. Twice, my entree showed up as I was only a few bites into my appetizer. Yet the server in each case didn't seem to think this was a bad thing: Each of them set the dish down on the crowded table without apology. Whereas most restaurants pour a sample for you to approve after opening your bottle of wine, this one simply filled the glass to the brim. The human peacocks supposedly hired to supervise the dining room tend not to notice problems and are so relaxed that they slip off to the bar to eat -- even on a busy Saturday night. And no one knows how to multi-task.
Don't go to Leopold's looking for love.
You can find a very nice pea soup, however. It comes in a handsome shade of green and is served cool, with swirls of yogurt and an island of diced roasted tomato, mint and more. Crostini slathered with paprika-punched cheese spread and showered with fava beans, chopped red bell pepper and shaved fennel is a fine snapshot of the season. A more substantial appetizer, the "pizzette," is a pillowy grilled flatbread smeared with sharp horseradish cream and decked out with folds of smoked salmon. Sleek as the light-filled dining room is, with its wavy wood ceiling and chrome-and-frosted-vinyl chairs, these dishes are even more of a treat when they're eaten on the charming brick patio, under a patch of blue sky and to the accompaniment of a splashing fountain.
Leopold's moist but bland Wiener schnitzel is no match for what you'd find in even a modest German restaurant around here, although the thin breaded veal is buoyed by a terrific caraway-flecked potato salad. Slices of beef with a sweet onion sauce and a handful of herbed french fries are more successful, as is the lemony pan-roasted chicken arranged on rich golden potatoes and wilted escarole. A generous portion of salmon is cooked per your request, but the cucumber-walnut salad it rests on is refrigerator-cold.
Leopold's design includes a glass display case that calls to small appetites with tiny tea sandwiches and to sweet tooths with fetching desserts. Some, like the tangy lemon meringue and pistachio-dusted apricot tarts, are very good.
Conceived by Georgetown developer Anthony Lanier, the restaurant takes its name from its architect, Leopold Boeckl. The venture is witty and sometimes delicious. The catch, however, is huge: It takes Job-like patience to endure a meal here.
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Terry Green recently ate in a restaurant that had just opened. "We did not know this when we made reservations," the Bethesda resident e-mailed me, "and since I don't want to do it in, I won't mention the name." The problem? "The food, service and ambiance were not up to par but the prices were." She wonders, "If a restaurant is going through a shake-down cruise, shouldn't the prices reflect this?" Actually, some of them do. One of the most encouraging trends of late is the new restaurant that's willing to extend lower prices to its early customers while it smooths out the bumps. A case in point: 21 P in Dupont Circle, which offered half-price food for the first two weeks of its life, followed by 25 percent off during the third week.
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