nternational Restaurant 3318 M St. NW 337-1400 Hours: Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, for dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. Prices: Dinner appetizers $1.50 to $2.50, entrees $6.95 to $9.95 Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa
Talk about trying to please everybody! The sign in the window of the fledgling International Restaurant suggests familiarity with no fewer than eight cuisines, including such diverse gastronomic bedfellows as Russia, Italy and Pakistan. From the two-page menu it's possible to start with a French soup, proceed with a Chinese main course and finish with an Indian dessert.
Around the world in a single meal.
No less diplomatic is the service, which falls under the watchful eye of Jude Gomez, and is fleshed out by a host of gracious family members and friends who attend to your needs, perhaps too eagerly. In part because the restaurant is fairly new, and a bit removed from the bustling scene closer to Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, business is not exactly booming yet -- in fact, on several occasions my companions and I were the sole diners. But the greeting is warm, and repeat visitors are received as enthusiastically as dignitaries.
What's more, diners needn't sacrifice comfort for an inexpensive meal. Although appointments are few, the walls of the narrow, softly lighted main dining room are of polished blond wood, with mirrors offering the illusion of more space, and carpet to mute any traffic. On the tables, which are graced with dusty rose-colored cloths, are fresh flowers and fanned napkins. Nice accents. Only the Muzak -- and the handle on the front door, which frequently pops off into the hands of unsuspecting patrons -- detract, and then only marginally, from this intimate setting.
The chef, we are told, comes to the kitchen by way of one of downtown Washington's more elegant dining rooms, Shezan, and before that, a British restaurant in Gibraltar. That might explain the unmistakable Indian accent in such dishes as the "all-American hamburger," which tastes more like Bombay than Boston, and is served with triangles of pita-like warm naan instead of a bun. An exotically seasoned burger nonetheless. More genuinely authentic is the $6.95 Indian special, a multicourse feast of soup, curry-redolent mixed vegetables, chickpeas, a blend of spinach and potatoes, perhaps a vegetable cutlet or kebob, rice, and a dessert of fresh fruit. In terms of presentation, price and quality, it was the best meal I encountered.
And then there's a homey chicken curry, the chicken a tad overcooked but plentiful and with a savory brown gravy, served with a strapping portion of moist basmati rice, and a satisfactory beef shish kebob, which comes with chutney and a sprightly salad of chopped onion, tomato and peppers. For quaffing, there is a frothy, pink fruit punch and a creamy blend of mango juice, half-and-half and coconut.
For starters, there are prawn and crab cocktails, in addition to half a dozen soups, the best of which is probably the mustard-colored, peppery broth known as mulligatawny.
I would suggest concentrating on the main dishes, which tend to be mildly seasoned, homey rather than sophisticated, and are presented with accompaniments that occasionally upstage their entrees: buttery, golden sauteed potatoes; glistening, perfectly cooked carrots; or my favorite, the basmati rice, striped with alternating trails of saffron and finely ground green herbs. Among the fish and seafood presentations, I'd opt for the sole Portuguese, topped with a tantalizing blend of chopped tomatoes, plump raisins, onion and garlic. For heartier appetites, the steak Neapolitan is a juicy, thick and tender piece of meat stuffed, oddly, with bits of grated cheddar cheese. And despite its very boozy madeira-mushroom sauce, the veal piccata is a good choice.
Not everything shines on this cross-cultural smorgasbord. The $7.95 Chinese special, for one, was an uneven parade of dull, creamy crab soup, fine shrimp fried rice, satisfying if unorthodox chow mein, and sweet and sour chicken that was neither sweet nor sour but very salty, and coated with a gelatinous brown gravy, redolent of soy sauce. Disappointing, too, was the chef's salmon special, which proved unpleasantly fishy and was bogged down in its lackluster cheese sauce.
Endings are sweet and, fittingly, as global in scope as the rest of the menu. Best bets include the hefty creme caramel, the delicately sweet and pleasanty nutty carrot halva, and the sublime lemon souffle.Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.