‘Table” call out the big white letters splashed across the two-story brick facade of one of the most exciting restaurants of the season. “Table!” I say to anyone who wants to put some spark in their meals.
Admittedly, I was cautious about the restaurant when I first heard about it. Chef-owner Frederik De Pue hadn’t impressed this diner much with his early cooking at Smith Commons on H Street NE, where my memories included flabby duck confit and tough steak, but also tasty scallops on creamed corn. I approached Table with a dose of skepticism and crossed fingers. An open mind, like an open mouth, is essential in this business.
“It wasn’t a good match,” De Pue says of his short time at Smith Commons. “The freedom wasn’t there.” At Table, “I cook what I want.”
One of several touches that set this place apart from the pack is its physical menu. Hats off to the scribe who took the time to detail not just the food, but also the dozens of wines, in graceful cursive on 60 original menus. (And a pox on those diners who filched all but 14 of them. “Theft is high,” De Pue says.)
Behind the penmanship are some winning plates, the flavors of which lean to the Mediterranean but are not slaves to that part of the map. Witness one night’s flaky and buttery rafts of pastry decked out with sliced veal shoulder, wisps of greens, diced cucumbers and dabs of tart Greek yogurt. The first course is two tartlettes, and even if there’s just one of you, you’ll wish the plate held more. A silvery, tail-on sardine, kissed with olive oil, thyme and garlic, glides to the table on a nest of frisee and white beans. The composition is finished with a sunny mango-and-carrot sauce that takes you briefly to the tropics. Rich duck rillettes show up with a tiny salad and house-made potato chips that practically float off the plate.
De Pue says he titled his new restaurant Table for its “simple, clean name.” The description applies just as well to much of his food, including cavatelli strewn with tender mussels and clams in their shells. Sublime on its own, the dish benefits from a broth flavored with the juices of the seafood plus sweet corn and tarragon.
I appreciate a chef who likes to mix up his menu, but be forewarned: The dish you love at Table today may not be around for you on your next outing.
Vegetarians who feel disrespected when they dine out will feel embraced at Table, where one of my happiest recollections is an entree of fresh asparagus poised on a card-size square of spinach flan and ringed with bright crushed tomato. Yellow corn shoots crisscrossed the dish, which also slipped in coins of asparagus. The result is a garden of good eating. Another night, another wonder: hearts of palm affixed to their plate with smoky eggplant puree and embellished with diced red bell peppers, shreds of fresh basil and airy croutons.
Vegetables stole attention from another main course: dense and overcooked pork with a thin barbecue sauce not far removed from ketchup. The disappointing hunk of meat was balanced on its plate by a sunny succotash of corn, peas and carrots. Is the breast of guinea hen roasted a moment past optimal? It is. But the main course is redeemed in part by its juicy meatball, made from the leg, and sauteed baby fennel and shiitake mushrooms. Lamb loin is cooked as pink as we ask, and I dig the jalapeño sauce on its plate, but the slices rest atop a bed of white lentils that go down like hot cereal.
With an exception or two, desserts are lesser draws than the starters and main courses. If it’s offered, however, splurge on the warm apple tart. Table’s excellent coffee is poured from a French press.
Upstairs or down? Inside or out? You may be asked those questions at the host stand, particularly if you dine on the early side of the night and there are options available.
Dressed with ribs of wood overhead, the ground floor has the advantage of tables that give their occupants a view of the long exhibition kitchen, set off with counter space for two on either side for super up-close looks. The second story is a mere four tables, but they’re picnic-size and allow settlers to monitor their Secret Service details parked in black Suburbans outside. (Why, hello, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. Nice to see you, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.) A short set of stairs away is a rooftop deck with a pink door that is expected to change hue with the season.
“The owner is crazy,” a server playfully says in explaining the design, hatched in what was once a taxi repair shop. Coming up in June, to signal summer: a green door, along with a green rear wall downstairs and a matching menu binder.
I’ve always received smart service at Table, but always from the same waiter and apparently at the expense of others. Much to my dismay, one recent customer, Brent Colburn, wrote to tell me that his meal had been greatly delayed so the staff could, as his waiter told him, make sure my tablemates and I had a positive experience. “He literally said, ‘That’s the price you pay for a good review,’ ” Colburn reported in an e-mail. “Needless to say, our jaws sort of hit the floor.”
Mine, too. Indeed, the e-mail left me feeling less charitable toward Table. The best tack any restaurant can take is to pretend everyone in the dining room is a critic and treat him or her accordingly. De Pue, who says he was “surprised” by my retelling of Colburn’s experience, agrees. “The neighbor who comes in every night and orders one dish with a glass of water is just as important” as the next mouth.
903 N St. NW. 202-588-5200. tabledc.com.
OPEN:Dinner 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 5 p.m. to midnight Thursday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
METRO:Mount Vernon Square-Convention Center.
PRICES: Appetizers $9 to $14, main courses $18 to $38.
SOUND CHECK:74 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.