** Creme Cafe
1322 U St. NW (near 13th Street) 202-234-1884
Open: for dinner 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Sunday through Thursday, 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. Friday and Saturday; for brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. AE, MC, V. No smoking. Metro: U Street/Cardozo. Prices: appetizers $5 to $9; entrees $9 to $18. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $45 per person.
Have you been to Creme?" acquaintances have been asking me for months. The U Street restaurant had been on my to-do list for a while, yet for one reason or another, I kept putting off an introduction. Then the drumbeat became more insistent: Some of my pals were treating Creme as an extension of their kitchens, showing up two or more times a week to eat there, and others were pretty vocal about the merits of its pork and beans. (Pork and beans? Isn't that something usually found in a can?) And so it was that I landed at the cafe's bar one fall night, looking for a quick bite and an explanation for the buzz.
Two thoughts leapt to mind when I first opened the door. The first: Cool space. Creme (rhymes with dream) opens with a spare little lounge and continues with a long banquette that rests against an olive-green wall set off with recessed lighting. The restaurant has fewer than 50 seats, but it looks bigger, thanks to strategically placed mirrors and a high ceiling. My second reflection: In a city that professes to be progressive but whose public dining rooms typically reveal very little mixing of ebony and ivory, Creme is a refreshing exception. A rainbow of faces routinely occupy its tables.
But a sense of style and an attractive clientele will carry a restaurant only so far. To keep people coming back, a place has to offer something to chew on. Creme does more than that, offering dishes with wide appeal -- chicken soup, shrimp and grits -- that look as put together as you'd expect of a restaurant but taste as if someone's mother had a hand in their making. In a few instances, chef Terrell Danley says, there actually is a pipeline from home. The "Mama Laura" label attached to his popular braised-and-roasted chicken refers not just to his mother, from whom he learned to make the recipe, but also to his grandmother and great-grandmother. The dish whispers of fresh thyme, sweet bell peppers, some wine -- and a loving childhood.
Places like Creme don't happen in a vacuum. Danley has rubbed shoulders with some of the area's best-known chefs, having worked previously for Jeff Buben, Bob Kinkead and Cindy Wolf. More recently, he's been a corporate chef at Sam & Harry's. His business partner in the venture, Bryan Hight -- Creme's general manager and a culinary school graduate -- wears a chef's jacket, too, though his background is steeped more in supervising dining room staffs, including Paolo's in Georgetown and B. Smith's on the Hill.
"There are no boundaries here," Danley explains. "If we need him in the kitchen," Hight pitches in, and Danley is no stranger to delivering food to waiting customers. All that experience finds its way to the table, not just in the food, but also in the service. Most of the waiters act as if they have a stake in the success of Creme, extending courtesies a diner might find in more formal venues. Order a glass of wine, and its bottle is first presented for your inspection. (Like a number of new restaurants, Creme forgoes stemmed glasses for elegant tumblers.)
The restaurant is so small that no matter where you sit you can see Danley and his colleagues, each sporting a bandanna on his head, fussing over your plates in the rear exhibition kitchen. Most of their food is beautifully staged. The aforementioned chicken soup, for instance, arrives in a white bowl with square sides; broad egg noodles, nice bites of chicken and colorful vegetables swim in a rich golden broth that turns out to be some of the liquid from Mama Laura's chicken with some shallots mixed in. A fan of crisp sesame crackers makes a nice accessory. A little forest of lemongrass, cilantro and scallions sets off a bowl of mussels gathered in a steaming liquid that absorbed those enhancers. There are hundreds of places to order steamed mussels; Creme shows us what separates okay from "Okay!" Meanwhile, shrimp and grits is as glamorous as anything you might find downtown. The starch is coarse and soft, a comforting bed for coins of spicy andouille and tender sauteed shrimp, all of which is dusted with chopped scallions. "Our most popular dish," a waiter announces as he sets the entree before me. It's easy to believe him, at least until I order the beef short ribs and wonder why it isn't numero uno. The beef, slowly braised in the oven and framed with roasted vegetables, has Sunday Supper written all over it (never mind that you might be eating it mid-week).
The exception to the pretty formula is pork and beans, a behemoth shank atop a base of sweet-with-brown sugar and smoky-with-bacon beans. The picture is plain as can be, and also pretty darn satisfying. Move over -- waaaaay over -- Van Camp's.
Creme is a sexy addition to a neighborhood that seems to be gentrifying more by the week. With a few tweaks, the restaurant could be an even better place to hang. A few rugs on the bare floor might help absorb some of the noise at prime time, and a cushion on the hard wood banquette would definitely make for a more comfortable dinner hour. The wine list is shorter than it reads; invariably, the restaurant is out of my first and sometimes even my second pick.
With regard to the menu, there are only a handful of things I'd change. One of them would be the crab spring rolls, which tasted woefully fishy when I sampled the appetizer. Another is the hamburger made with Kobe beef. Its meat, which rests on a dry bun, is crumbly and vapid; its "fat fries" are too big to be cooked through. And dessert is an afterthought here. Some ordinary cookies do not make for a suitable ending.
I know the kitchen can do better. I know the Mama Lauras would agree.
To chat with Tom Sietsema online, click on Live Online at www.washingtonpost.com, Wednesdays at 11 a.m.
What to do when a dish isn't cooked to the proper temperature? asks Maryann Gosnell in an e-mail. The Potomac reader and her husband were eating out recently when she encountered cold crab cakes and he got a hamburger that was raw inside after having ordered it medium-rare. The couple informed a staff member, who apologized and removed the plates -- but returned with the same food. "The best way to cook food is to cook it right the first time," Gosnell writes, "not to cook it once, have it cool off, reheat it and cook it again and serve it." I agree. Not only does the integrity of the dish suffer when it's recooked, there's no way a partially consumed crab cake or hamburger is going to look appetizing afterward.