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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 08/11/2005

New On U

By Fritz Hahn

These days, new places are cropping up all over the U Street corridor. The food and bar scene is getting particularly interesting, thanks to three spanking-new spots with distinctly different flavors on the block between 13th and 14th streets.

Tabaq Bistro, from the owners of Meze in Adams Morgan, offers a Middle Eastern-themed restaurant and lounge over five levels. We checked out the opening night, and it reminded us why we hate opening night events: it was so crowded that it was difficult to get a handle on the place, especially with traffic flow between floors. The main level is an attractive room with a long red banquette running along one wall, facing an attractive bar counter. There's not much room in the aisle between the bar and the tables, though, so it may get overly crowded once the lounge crowd discovers Tabaq. The basement level is a quieter lounge that seems mellow compared to the rest of the bistro, though it's just as well appointed. Tabaq's second and third floors will eventually open as VIP rooms, but in the meantime, they're just closed doors and blank walls that you pass as you climb three flights of stairs to the roof. The rooftop bar is the star of the whole bistro: the convertible glass roof will be open seasonally, but allows 360-degree views of the city no matter the weather. On hot summer nights, though, the windows trap the heat, so rooftop drinkers will be bugs under a microscope. Still, the skyline views are worth a little sweat. Tabaq is positioning itself as a tapas bar, but early indications are the cocktails and views will prove at least as popular -- if not more.

Creme Cafe and Lounge is a small, southern-style restaurant in the former space of Gojo Cottage Cafe. The restaurant has limited capacity, but the full menu is available at the bar. Chef "T," who has worked for the Sam and Harry's group and Georgia Brown's, created a menu that fuses upscale food with homestyle appeal (think a Kobe beef hot dog, pork and beans and "Oprah's tomato salad," named in honor of a dish that Winfrey enjoyed at Georgia Brown's). Still, the menu seems pricey and limited; 10 items are available, ranging from $9 for that Kobe hot dog to $18 for a plate of shrimp and grits. Luckily, the gregarious chef has a full view of the dining room and encourages diners to approach with requests or stop and chat on their way to the restrooms. As for the bar, the cocktail menu features a number of infused martinis and cognac-based drinks for $10. Erin's Yellow Cab didn't take her anywhere, and Fritz's Rickey Stinger was well made with Tanqueray 10 gin, but it was nothing special for the price. Clearly new, the restaurant is still trying to find its stride, but we're not sure we're enamored of what that stride will be.

On the other hand, Al Crostino is a gem. A new wine bar and restaurant from Luigi Diotaiuti of Al Tiramisu, this is actually a worthy replacement for Kuna/Opera. The extensive wine list offers a great Italian-only selection of reasonably priced labels available by the bottle or by the glass. Bartenders are happy to offer tastes and suggestions to ensure a happy wine experience. Don't worry if you're not terribly familiar with this side of Italian wines; perusing it is fun, and the bartenders can offer instant (and correct) takes on the styles. As Fritz selected the Montepulciano, the bartender smiled and said, "That's my favorite, too." Then he gently ribbed Erin over her indecisiveness. As the restaurant's name suggests, the crostini alone are worth a trip. Seared scallops on lima bean puree and the irresistible duck carpaccio rocked our palates, but we had trouble ruling out mozzarella di Bufala and calamari. For lovers of large plates, there's a full dining menu with pastas and meat and fish dishes. It's dimly lit and would be an excellent choice for a second date spot when you're looking to up the ante.

-- Erin and Fritz

By Fritz Hahn  | August 11, 2005; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Bars and Clubs, Restaurants  
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