Restaurant Reviews

Setting a New Standard

I'll try to be calm, but I can't promise I'll succeed because, in the past seven days, I've been to Tasca twice, and the experience both times.... Oh, what the hell! I might as well come right out and say it: The experience was extraordinary. My first visit left me so dazed with pleasure, a friend was forced to drive me home. And the second time was even more embarrassing. Completely unmanned, I couldn't find my car for an hour.

Overreaction? Not at all. Tasca is not merely a new restaurant. It's that rare thing: a restaurant that, in addition to being new, succeeds in being great as well. Which makes me fear for it. This is an ambitious place, and the standards it has set for itself are unusually high. Is Tasca guilty of the sin of hubris? Is it daring the gods to smite it down? I hope not. I would hate to see it end up like Prometheus, pinioned to a rock for all eternity while vultures make a meal of its liver.

I'm betting that the gods will go easy on Tasca for the reason that the restaurant's three principals -- Grant Cooper, Charles Clark and Rasheed Refaey -- are deeply serious about food, about wine, about service -- about everything, in fact, that makes the experience of eating out exemplary. Everyone who works here -- from barmen and busboys to waiters and parking valets -- has been trained extensively and, because of it, service is impeccable. At Tasca, they don't simply top up your water glass; they replace it. The candles are replaced, too -- whisked away the moment they start to gutter. (I was hoping that someone might notice my aging jacket and feel compelled to replace it also.) And another nice touch: Diners, if they're eating tapas, are provided with scented towels wrapped around what look to be luminarias or votive lamps. It's all quite enchanting.

And these people listen. We told our waiter -- hi, Bob -- that we were off to see a play at 7:30 and would need to be served fairly quickly. We forgot the play when dinner arrived. But Bob hadn't. At seven o'clock, he came by and said: "If you want to make that curtain, you need to leave in the next ten minutes." When's the last time that happened to you in a restaurant?

Since neither of us was especially hungry that first evening, we ordered the tapas plate ($20), which arrived in an elongated dish looking like a small canoe. The assortment had been put together by Charles Lane, the chef, and included several shrimp still sporting their heads; some mussels looking very fetching in their heliotrope shells; a quantity of olives, pimientos peeping from their pitted centers; numerous slices of manchego cheese; a piece of what the Spanish call a potato omelet, known to us as a frittata; a cluster of calamari; chorizo on which small flames danced (it had just been splashed with brandy); and snail ravioli drenched -- one might almost say drowned -- in anchovy butter.

The ravioli had the dimensions of a slice of Kraft cheese and, because everyone seemed very proud of it, we pretended to be proud of it, too -- though truth to tell, it tasted rather ordinary. But everything else -- with the exception of the omelet, which was served cold and tasted stodgy -- was great. The calamari, indeed, proved something of a revelation. I had no idea they could taste this good. The chef, who worked briefly in kitchens in Spain, knows that calamari need a light hand. (The Spanish cook calamari by putting them in a strainer and pouring hot broth over them.)

To finish, we shared a dessert: a bowl of angel food cake soaked in Frangelico and topped with lightly caramelized peaches fetched just that afternoon from Fredericksburg. It was utterly sublime -- so much so that I've since written to the Vatican suggesting -- no, insisting -- that the pope canonize Clark immediately.

Tasca is spacious. Housed in a renovated Market Square building, the restaurant gives you room to move and room to converse without the feeling that the people at the next table -- that couple with their ears cocked -- can hear your every word. There's a sense of amplitude as well. The ceilings are high, and there's lots of light. (The wall facing the street is entirely lined with windows.) Through three French doors, there's a view of a small garden where Tasca, sometime in the future, plans to serve breakfast.

Visiting Tasca for lunch a week later, we began with the crab cake ($7) and a goat cheese salad ($7). Wonderfully moist, the crab cake came with a remoulade oozing down one side and was served on a perfectly wonderful crawfish polenta. The salad was good as well, though I wish it hadn't been quite so large. The feta, though, was outstanding. Sporting a crust of crushed pecans, it was served warm and tasted nicely acrid.

Our entrees -- catfish ($9) and lasagna ($10) -- were even more spectacular. The catfish, perfectly fresh and wearing a thick, crisp coat of cornmeal, was nothing less than superb. But this plate had another star player: mashed potatoes in a rich crawfish gravy. Nothing else quite topped those potatoes, but the lasagna came close. "It's not your conventional lasagna," our waitress warned us. And indeed, it was not. Layered with tender slices of beef, blue cheese and whipped ricotta, it was the best lasagna I've ever tasted.

Is Tasca cool, a friend asked me. Well, yes, I suppose it is. Which worries me a little. What if it becomes too cool? The warning signs are already evident. The chef will permit no one but the late jazz trumpeter Chet Baker to be played on the public-address system, he told us, and the business card he gave me, while it looks great, is barely legible. At Tasca, one gets the feeling that a battle may be shaping up that pits style against substance. Let's hope it never comes to that. Tasca is quite perfect. I want it to stay exactly as it is.

Tasca Kitchen and Wine Bar, 908 Congress, 225-9100.

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Eric Lawlor