There’s something fishy about the veal at Bambule Brasserie. Actually, we’re downright confused by all of the entrees on the table—the salmon, the swordfish that’s on special. If we were to close our eyes, we’d have a hard time telling them apart. Hell, we have the same problem with our eyes open. The sides on all the plates are identical: oily sliced carrots, wilted spinach, a DQ swirl of mashed potatoes. And although there’s been an effort to differentiate one sauce from another—there are shallots in the salmon’s sauce and capers in the swordfish’s—they all taste strikingly similar to the thick, overly tart lemon-butter concoction gracing my veal. We enjoy the rich chocolate-pistachio cake (it’s not made in house), but our dinner’s real saving grace is the calamari appetizer. The squid rings are tender and fried to crackle. Better yet, the calamari doesn’t gives us reason to question whether or not it’s calamari.
In its early stages, Bambule, which has been open now for six weeks, is certainly the least ambitious ambitious restaurant I’ve tried all year. There’s a trio of talented restaurateurs behind it: Mostaf Meliani, who’s had past success with Georgetown’s Paper Moon; Said Oughiri, a Casablanca native and former owner of Dar Es Salaam; and Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld, the brains behind Chi-Cha Lounge. Bambule is located in the dining wasteland of Friendship Heights, but you’ll be hard pressed to remember its address once you step inside. To a large degree, that’s the idea—if the restaurant’s talent pool can lure diners from points farther south, perhaps locals won’t feel obliged to leave the neighborhood once the sun sets.
Bambule certainly has the potential to establish such a beachhead, if only because its space, a tasteful embrace of dark wood and well-chosen furnishings, is primed for the task. There are, of course, poofy couches and slumber-worthy chairs, but they’re sprinkled about, inviting loungers to sit amongst those with menus. The bar and the several dining rooms are sectioned off by walls and hanging fabric, but the restaurant as a whole doesn’t come off as overly segmented. In fact, the events of the rear dining rooms—which create the feeling of seclusion as they seem to go back forever—are audible in the front bar. Visible, too: One night, a friend mistakes the entrance to a back room for a mirror.
The restaurant is stunning enough that it’s a shame there’s a danger of its getting tarnished by spilled food—especially the food that Bambule has been churning out in its early stages. The menu is a cross-section of French and Italian standards that the kitchen executes with the passion of an underachieving kid forced to do his algebra homework.
The smoked salmon with arugula is just plain unpresentable; the plate contains a needlessly huge slab of fish plopped over a pile of greens so overloaded with vinaigrette that they taste like thin pickles. Salade nicoise suffers a similar fate; there’s very little difference in taste between the boiled potatoes and green beans. The restaurant pays little attention to visual composition; a “stuffed” portobello mushroom arrives with its shrimp-and-fontina filling on the side. The Caesar, like that calamari, shines only in relation to its company. We like its garlicky kick, and at least the lettuce is crisp. But where are the anchovies? Perhaps the restaurant figures that salty fish is out of its customers’ league. In explaining the specials one night, our waiter asks, “Do you know what couscous is?”
The problem with the kitchen isn’t necessarily that it’s shirking invention; I’d gladly dig into another batch of mussels simmered simply in white wine, tomato, and basil. Bambule’s crime is in shooting low and missing. Done right, filet mignon in bearnaise sauce is an irresistible extravagance. The filet could deliver pleasure on its own; the bearnaise serves, both figuratively and (almost) literally, as gravy. But here, the cut of meat—let’s call it a medallion; it’s that puny—needs all the help it can get. A seafood pasta contains a few rewards—most notably, tender lobster—but its tomato sauce is sweet, and the mushrooms are a mystery. There’s no way to prove whether the ‘shrooms are fresh or canned. The point is that we can’t tell.
The restaurant’s shown some signs of improvement. Over the span of three visits, for example, the bread-dipping olive oil has gone from being filled with grated romano to shredded romano…to shredded romano and herbs. And the lamb chops on special one night are juicy enough that it’s a shame that they come with the same boring side dishes as everything else. To be fair, Bambule’s menu is still labeled “preview,” in acknowledgment that the kitchen is still working through kinks, and the staff speaks excitedly about the soon-to-come chef’s menu and “bruschetta bar.” Still, it’s doubtful that the food is going to suddenly become inspired. Imagine watching a pianist warm up with “Hot Cross Buns”—and get it wrong. Would you expect him to turn into Bill Evans before your eyes?
Bambule, 5225 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 966-0300.
Melrose will always operate under a cloud. It’s a hotel restaurant, and we all know what that means—high prices, tacky decor, menus that read like, well, Bambule’s. But Melrose, for the most part, is different: Its sunken dining room is sunny and elegant, and its chef, Brian McBride, is an eccentric with a delicate hand. McBride has a fondness for Asian spices—taste the lemongrass shooting through his corn chowder—but his specialty is pasta. His pumpkin ravioli is extraordinary, velvety and sweet, whiffing of truffles and paired with a photogenic crowd of firm, young vegetables. If Melrose could escape its hotel-restaurant prices, it’d blow away the cloud entirely.
Melrose, Park Hyatt Hotel, 1201 24th St. NW, (202) 955-3899.—Brett Anderson
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