Creme Cafe and Lounge

A spare, comfortable restaurant/lounge with a Southern-accented menu.

From December 2005

Stylish and personal, Crème Café and Lounge–chef Terrell Danley's cozy roost–avoids the cookie-cutter sameness of several of its recently arrived neighbors. It's the standout of the new U Street restaurants.

It's stretching things to say that Crème would be right at home on U Street in its heyday, but not by much. Danley, who has cooked at Georgia Brown's and Sam & Harry's, has fashioned a small but appealing menu–seven first courses, nine main courses, and three or four desserts–of bold, straightforward American cooking. Though small, the space accommodates a comfortable lounge, a long bar, and a dozen tables. And the customers come dressed to impress.

Of the seven first courses, the homey star is a big bowl of chicken noodle soup, perfect for a winter night. The broth tastes intensely of chicken, with generous portions of broad noodles and vegetables, and could serve as a light meal for the bargain price of $5. Mussels, steamed in a spicy broth flavored with ginger, garlic, and cilantro, are equally good. El's Mushroom Masterpiece is another simple triumph–an assortment of wild mushrooms sautéed and served with white-truffle oil and Manchego cheese.

Two innovations also succeed: Oprah's Tomato Salad–reprised from a meal Danley once catered for Oprah Winfrey–is concealed in a flaky case of puff pastry and accented with fresh basil and olive oil. His no-bread-crumb crab cake isn't just clever–a simple crab salad is wrapped in a thin spring-roll skin and quickly sautéed–it's also rewarding. Without the necessity of holding itself together, it's lighter than the usual crab cake, and the flavor of good crabmeat predominates.

The main courses are homey and delicious. In a world where quickly grilled meat is the fashion, Danley understands that flavor is best achieved by long, slow cooking. I'd go here any time for meat and potatoes–beautifully caramelized short ribs of beef served with a potato gratin and roasted root vegetables. His version of pork and beans is new-fangled in its approach–a pork shank on a bed of lima beans, with smoky bacon and caramelized onions–but old-fashioned in its result, the slight sweetness of the pork a nice contrast to the smoky flavor of the bacon. There's also beautifully roasted chicken, served with rice; shrimp and grits, spicy with andouille sausage; and, for patrons interested in dining more simply but no less luxuriously, a $9 Kobe-beef hot dog and a half-pound Kobe-beef hamburger.

Desserts, coming on the heels of such rib-sticking food, are sensibly small–a plate of cookies, a sugar basket of fresh berries, or the Sniglet, the chef's choice of what's available served in a bite-size portion.

Wines are modestly priced, with many in the $20 range. A Ken Forrester Petit Pinotage for $20 goes well with many of Danley's dishes.

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