It’s hard to imagine a dining-room layout less conducive to foot traffic than that of the main space in Rosemary’s Thyme Bistro, but the closeness of the tables is one of the more endearing features of the burgeoning neighborhood enterprise. Only a sober person should try to extract herself from a window seat and bump her way to the bathroom; still, the endeavor provides a flirty, I-didn’t-mean-to-rub-my-fingers-through-your-hair kick. Considering the relative ethnic diversity of the menu, it wouldn’t hurt to learn how to say “excuse me” in more than a couple of different languages, if only to be cute.
The sense of permanence that dining rooms create is largely a mirage; few public spaces are as temporary—few are analyzed and reimagined so often. Yet the corner that Rosemary’s took over, at 18th and S Streets NW, is practically tinker-proof, an unreformable dog that everyone in the neighborhood wants to kiss on the lips. So it’s hard to blame the restaurant’s proprietors for not trying to reshape this stubborn L shape into something more sharply angled or curvy. When Lauriol Plaza vacated the corner last summer, I predicted that the restaurant would go bust in its new, overblown digs—that it was the corner, not its inhabitant, that drew people in. I was wrong about Lauriol’s fate. But just this past week, there I was, waiting anxiously for my turn to steam up a window inside Lauriol’s former address. And this was after I’d learned from experience that the food offers nothing to be overly excited about.
Following a tough act is just as difficult in the restaurant world as in the rest of showbiz, and Rosemary’s game plan betrays its rather daunting task. The menu bills its fare as “Mediterranean-Creole.” And in addition to defining the former broadly by serving everything from tzatziki to a “Provencal” pasta dish to a Turkish pide filled with pastrami, the kitchen also churns out pad thai, creme brulee, and a pan-fried borek that amounts to a jalapeno popper under a layer of skin.
Rosemary’s culinary worldview encompasses tortilla soup, but not chips and salsa: The Mexican munchies served at Lauriol (unlike the bigger fare) can’t be improved upon, so Rosemary’s charts its own path with a list of meze all priced under two bucks. Garlic is cut effectively by lemon or mint in each of the Mediterranean dips (hummus, tzatziki, eggplant salad), and anyone who makes hanging at the bar a habit could be in danger of carpal tunnel syndrome from the constant motion of spreading the olive-and-vegetable tapenade over bread. Those fried borek are more expensive, but equally addictive; they reimagine egg rolls as indigenous to New Orleans and Santa Fe. Our waiter informs us that the shrimp remoulade is an acquired taste, and I agree, but not for the reason he gives: The coldness of the firm shrimp served in a spicy Cajun paste is refreshing. What puzzles me are the limp greens that serve as their bed.
The menu’s unwieldy, but it also serves a clear objective; to be everything to as many neighbors as possible; you could easily eat here regularly for months and not have the same thing twice. Some of the salads, which number in the double digits, could use some pruning; the Caesar serves as a reliable base for a simple meal of grilled chicken or blackened tuna, but that remoulade that showed so nicely on the shrimp sits like wet concrete on greens in a Greek salad with crayfish tails. Pastas show up in even larger numbers with similar results. All I can think of when eating the Thai-seasoned beef is how I wish I could trade in the accompanying penne for rice, whereas the chicken Alfredo—thick, rich, gone in no time—causes me to wonder when was the last time that I ate a cream sauce I actually liked. Order the sweet, clumpy pad thai and I think you’ll agree with some advice I glean at the bar: “If you order something with noodles, stay out of Asia.”
I propose to go a step further and flip by the pasta page altogether. Rosemary’s penchant for miscegenation is much more delectable when it goes off under a shield of cheese or inside a roll of thin dough. The pizzas won’t answer any of your prayers, but the one with barbecue chicken doesn’t fall flat, either; the cloak of smoked gouda masks the sweetness in the barbecue sauce enough to make sense of the whole thing. And the flat bread used for the wraps is a welcome departure from the traditional tortilla—thin enough to roll, but just thick enough to taste. Sure, the muffuletta wrap is a disrespectful bastardization of its inspiration. But after you finish picking the olives off your chest and emptying your wallet of the eight bucks that the sandwich costs, you won’t really give a damn.
Rosemary’s never-ending menu (did I mention the kabobs?) is a hard document to love. There’s too much on it for the kitchen to really caress anything into perfection, and you could never accuse any restaurant that attempts to turn lox and bagels into a fettucine dish of being overly concerned about shouldering its way into Gourmet. But dare I say that the place itself is as neighborly as ever? The atmosphere belongs in no small part to the corner and the restaurant’s cuddly front room, but the staff is pretty crackerjack, too. The waiter I get one night would probably ride his surfboard to work if he could. But he also knows the wine list (which isn’t bad) and shares our enthusiasm for the baklava to such a degree that we’re compelled to share with him. Another waiter is so proper he could run the French Embassy. We like him, too. What’s more, both are playing to a sizable audience—and the patio isn’t even open yet.
Rosemary’s Thyme Bistro, 1801 18th St. NW, (202) 332-3200.
One way to follow a tough act is simply to appropriate it and use it as your own. Take Mrs. Simpson’s: When the fabled restaurant closed its doors last year, one of its regulars was so distraught at having to forgo his favorite liver dish that he took the place over to ensure that he wouldn’t have to. The staff comforts old faces with the assurance that nothing’s changed, but that’s a half-truth. Journeywoman Gillian Clark (formerly of Evening Star Cafe and the Broad Street Grill, among other places) is now running the kitchen, and she’s helping reinvigorate a restaurant that earned its oblivion before she arrived. Her ragout of rabbit and wild mushrooms is nothing fancy; it’s just good, slow-cooked meat beautified by a touch of cream. I could do without the weird homages to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, but at least the snootiness of the old place has been banished by a dose of egalitarianism. Judging from the visit I made wearing a baseball hat and the previous evening’s pajamas, I’d say that the staff is indiscriminate in choosing whom it fawns over.
Mrs. Simpson’s, 2915 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 332-8700.—Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.