“Oh my God, have you heard about who’s been eating here?” a friend asks, priming me for a visit to Tahoga, a Georgetown restaurant that has been justly praised since its opening last spring. I don’t know until she tells me, frankly, and once inside the place, I don’t much care. Given her descriptions of a glamour-puss meet-and-greet, I assumed Tahoga would be one of those restaurants where the actual meal is treated as a mere accessorysomething for discussion, not consumption. I’m happy to be wrong.
Anyone allergic to the ostentatious pageantry of some high-end restaurants can regard Tahoga’s dining room as a safe zone. It’s a clean, subtly dressed-up wash of white. Dried branches poke from vases, casting thin, twisty shadows. Squiggly lines have been cut into the walls and fixed up with lights; they glow like cracks in the shell of a magical egg. The bar is a curvy puzzle piece, but it’s functional, too, providing plenty of counter space. Best of all, the staff seems virtually unaffected by working at a hot spot. Because of my mistaken assumptions, I call ahead to feel the place out before my first visit, trying to make sure I won’t be shunned at the door. “Like, what should I wear?” I finally ask the woman who answers. “I don’t knowwhatever,” she tells me.
Tahoga’s food is similarly low-key, yet there’s nothing nonchalant about the way it’s prepared. The kitchen is staffed with chefs who’ve done time at Kinkead’s, so their highly refined, often memorable take on modern American cuisine comes as no great surprise.
The menu is short and virtually devoid of duds. The fried seafood appetizers are wondrous: The conch fritters are succulent with their red pepper aioli and mango salsa, while the shrimp, riding on a corn pancake in a puddle of chive-studded crème fraîche, are enhanced by a buttermilk batter. The tuna tartare, tossed in coconut-milk dressing and splashed in cinnamon oil, has an adroitly tempered sweetness. Wild-mushroom ravioli arrive plump in a pool of roasted-shallot-and-mushroom broth good enough to drinka natural bath for these earthy dumplings. The only real misfire on the entire menu is the steamed mussels, many of which are chewy if not shut tight. But in the context of the rest of the meals we have, the disappointment is only a blip on the screen. Two saladsone a Caesar with a crisp parmesan, the other an inspired mixture of spinach, grilled radicchio, roasted portobellos, goat cheese, and warm bacon vinaigretteraise talk of their being among the best we’ve had.
Tahoga’s virtues are numerous enough to stir debate. Warm weather presents the issue of where to sit. Both upstairs and downstairs dining rooms are warmly intimate, but there’s also a small balcony, perfect for a large group to turn into a sort of open-air party room. If you look out back, the manicured, picket fence-rimmed patio could be the type of place you’d even consider braving the cold to occupy.
A single entree can be similarly enticing. It’s hard to say what’s most appealing about the yucca-crusted salmon: the saffron risotto cakes, the tart cucumber-dill salad, the fish itself, or the crust surrounding it. Creamy, luscious polenta and wilted greens sit beneath a delightfully rare hunk of tuna. Whiff the steam coming off the lamb for its hint of rosemary, but don’t neglect the salad of baby artichokes and kalamatas sitting innocently to the side. Fragrant herb-crusted grouper comes propped against a pile of smoky, roasted potato logs and asparagus spears. There’s no arguing that the blood-red sirloin is anything but exquisite, but our table is divided over the gorgonzola mashed potatoes it escorts. Naysayers complain that the cheese overwhelms. But I dig the pungent intensity of the spuds; their richness suggests the inclinations of a kitchen that delivers desserts like the flourless chocolate cake or the buttery homemade cookies.
Of course, it’s impossible for a restaurant such as Tahoga to entirely evade charges of pretentiousnessit is in Georgetown. But the staff manages to strike the right balance by adopting a sassy, sometimes self-effacing personality of its own. While ordering drinks one night, a friend inquires about some pink poison she saw a woman order at the bar. She’s immediately reprimanded by her husband. “You don’t want that,” he gripes. “That woman was so affected.” Overhearing it all, our waitress gives us a knowing smile. “Welcome to Tahoga,” she says.
Tahoga, 2815 M St. NW. (202) 338-5380.
Some people get edgy when commerce shakes hands with spirituality. But I doubt anyone would take exception to the cafeteria at the United House of Prayer for All People on 7th Street. You may know the church: It’s highlighted in blue, and compared with the examples of urban decay around it, it looks like a palace. The cafeteria is considerably less glamorous; it looks the way you’d think a church cafeteria should. The food is Southern home-cooking done right. My favorites include the crisp fried chicken, the divinely greasy macaroni and cheese, and the great slabs of fried fish. As you might expect, the prices are similarly tasty.
United House of Prayer for All People, 1721 7th St. NW. (202) 986-7696.Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.