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Some food you just can’t dress up for the ball. Meatballs, for instance, look like mud in the company of anything brighter than red sauce or gravy, and thus are best left homely. Sure, scores of makeover artists have done interesting things with pizza over the years, but the pies tend to hemorrhage their respectability under the weight of tropical fruit.

Anyone who’d include the thick dips of the Middle East in the above list hasn’t dined at Le Tarbouche. The purees arrive, either by themselves or as a group, in caterpillarlike strips on translucent plates, and if you have toddlers along, you’ll have to explain that the fingerpaint is edible—and awesome. Forget about the store-bought sludge that has shown up at every cocktail party you’ve been to since college: The hummus is creamy, the baba ghanouj is haunting, and the two departures—one made with beets, the other with avocado—are vivid, dynamic spreads worthy of better bread. The pita discs, no bigger around than sand dollars and puffed up like a baby’s cheeks, are cute as hell, but their sweetness is a buzzkill.

And so it goes at Le Tarbouche, a restaurant as adept at coaxing out your senses as it is at chasing them right back into hiding—which is not entirely a bad thing, especially if you’re the type who gets off on being teased. After all, disappointment wouldn’t be the proper response if there were no reason to expect more.

Le Tarbouche’s food is billed as French-Middle Eastern, though the focus is on the latter; for the most part, chef Bader Ali uses the French affiliation as a license to play with duck, use garlic mayonnaise when tahini won’t do, and otherwise open the walk-in fridge of possibility.

The dining room nods to Ali’s Lebanese heritage. Tarbouche is French for fez, and the brimless, tasseled hats for which the restaurant is named decorate the walls, all of which are covered in a tweedy wallpaper that looks like stone from a distance. A hundred-plus blue votive candles burn overhead in the narrow bar, creating an icy glow that readies the eye for the eating area. Thanks to the pool of blue light spilling from the ceiling, the dining room invokes the feeling of a four-star restaurant built inside an igloo.

Whether you find its atmosphere cold or cool, Le Tarbouche refuses to look like anyplace you’ve ever eaten, creating a stage that seems to demand cutting-edge cuisine. In Ali’s hands, dolmas aren’t just grape leaves stuffed with rice; they’re expense-account items, with truffles showing up both in the risotto filling and the blanket of sauce. It’s the kind of edgy, robust creation that you can expect from Ali as long as you order something small. In one appetizer, he fills slices of baby eggplant with roasted peppers and walnuts, then overlays them with thin sheets of manchego cheese; in another, he sprinkles cracked wheat over lamb tartare. In each dish, Ali harnesses the shock waves of innovation while still creating something you’d want to eat again. The desserts are the same: Crepes are a twist on crême brûlée, filled with custard and encrusted with hardened sugar. A triangular heap of chocolate sits atop a hazelnut crust that, thin as it is, helps cut through the richness. Rice pudding, crowned with pomegranate seeds, is pure silk.

With one bite into Ali’s falafel-crusted sea bass it becomes clear that his brand of innovation works best on a small scale. Fine, it’s gorgeous, but the seasoned chickpeas are all I can taste, and with the $22 this dish costs I could eat falafel all week. Perfectly plump shrimp and delectable-looking cuts of lamb are simply visual stimuli, killed by overly thinky, too-sweet sauces that look exciting but taste like mishaps. The entrees showcase so much structural wizardry—couscous shaped into cones, pastry containers spilling baby vegetables or filled with duck confit and sealed—that you practically need a diagram to figure out what’s what. A spice-crusted salmon filet is, in fact, as moist and succulent as it looks, but it’s an aberration. At Le Tarbouche, style trumps substance to such a degree that substance can seem irrelevant. It’s possible that the duck is served as rare as it is because the meat looks best on the plate when it’s really, really red.

Le Tarbouche’s waiters are so unwavering in their enthusiasm for the cuisine and so proper in their manner that it’s almost as if they were imported from France along with the wine. Their demeanor and expertise add a lot in terms of ceremony, but their commitment to the chef’s cause is emblematic of the restaurant’s problem. One night we ask our waiter to clear our entrees—which, exhausted by their ocular loop-de-loops and discordant flavorings, we’ve left half-eaten. He hesitates. He is not happy. “The chef will be so disappointed,” he says, as if the chef is the one we came here to please.

Le Tarbouche, 1801 K St. NW, (202) 331-5551.

Hot Plate:

George’s Townhouse, a countertop Lebanese joint with a noisy griddle, some seats upstairs, and a TV that’s always on, offers falafel in its proper context. Rolled into large pitas rather than folded into small ones, George’s falafel sandwiches are tubular and nearly as long as my forearm. Inside the sandwich, pieces of pickled turnip and radish sit alongside the ubiquitous tomatoes, lettuce, and tahini, but the fried croquettes are what you’ll taste—spicier than most, audibly crisp, “the best this side of New York,” according to one reader. The self-proclaimed “King of Falafel” is also known for its unwaveringly tart, parsley-heavy tabbouleh, among other things. “No gyros?” asks one patron. “That’s Greek,” replies the counterman.

George’s Townhouse, 1205 28th St. NW, (202) 342-2278.

—Brett Anderson

Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to

banderson@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.