- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Poste opened two years ago like the post office itself, with inconsistencies, slow service and confusion. Happily (unlike the post office), Poste, housed in the spectacular original 1855 mail sorting room of the old General Post Office (later called the Tariff Building), has found its stride and style under the leadership of Robert J. Weland, executive chef. The main part of the Tariff Building is now the Hotel Monaco, adjacent to Poste.

Chef Weland has been cooking at Poste for about six months. He’s a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and comes to Washington from kitchens in New York, Philadelphia and France. Although French technique and concepts are the basis of his recipes, the chef has a uniquely American style of cooking. He specializes in local, seasonal products and uses herbs nurtured in the restaurant’s stone planters.

Poste is a handsome restaurant — it’s a pleasure to walk into the dining room: the 16-foot-high original cast-iron ceiling, restored original skylights, and tall china cabinets filled with vintage pieces. A small bar on one side has tall tables and stools. Booths on a raised platform break up the room nicely.

A side room with tables and chairs feels more formal than the brasserie, and the food tastes just as good. Beautiful black-glass bread and butter plates, handmade by Washington glass artist Tim Tate, add a touch of contemporary elegance. Each plate, with a discreet design in white, is different and is a beautiful place on which to rest a slice of the excellent country sourdough bread.

The dinner menu is straightforward, appropriate for the “moderne brasserie” as the restaurant styles itself. Most dishes are actually more sophisticated than the choucroute, herring or steak-frites one usually expects at a brasserie. Many presentations are elegant; all represent interesting combinations of ingredients.

As in the best Parisian brasseries, oysters — in this case, Kumamotos — are an important part of the fall menu. At Poste, they’re served with an apple mint gelee.

Appetizers include hamachi (yellowtail) served with pink grapefruit and a ginger vinaigrette; a salad of New Zealand mussels with seaweed and toasted sesame seeds; and beef tartare. The lovely arugula salad is enhanced by a sprinkling of basil and mint, with figs and Parmesan shavings in a sherry vinaigrette.

One of the best appetizers is a delicious crusty potato cake topped with mild, dill-cured salmon and a dollop of sour cream sprinkled with American caviar. The combination of the crispy, hot potatoes with the salmon, the cold sour cream and the salty tang of the fish eggs is wonderful.

Along with pumpkin and apple soup, there’s a daily soup and daily appetizer — on a recent evening it was a dish of steamed mussels, another traditional brasserie dish.

The main courses include a seasonal dish of seared Nantucket Bay scallops and braised fresh bacon, outstanding if somewhat startling as a culinary twosome. The scallops are sweet, tender and buttery. They rest upon rich, yet mild, fresh bacon, which in turn lies atop a thin layer of apple-mustard puree. Fresh bacon is totally unlike the smoked version we encounter at breakfast, neither salty nor crisp. The delicious little scallops can stand alone, but the introduction of the other elements makes the dish interesting and unusual.

The Snake River Farms beef is akin to a sliced hanger steak. It’s a flavorful piece of meat, but not very tender. The steak is served with a pleasant horseradish cream sauce, crisp baby root vegetables and a piece of Yorkshire pudding. The latter is a daring addition to the plate since Yorkshire pudding should be served piping hot and puffy. By the time the dish arrived at the table, the pudding was barely lukewarm and had lost its airy puffiness. A nice idea, perhaps, but difficult to execute.

Chef Weland’s other main-course offerings include crispy-skin wild rockfish with a poached egg and champ potatoes (a traditional Irish dish of potatoes mashed with green onions and butter); roasted Amish chicken with chestnut and mushroom stuffing; double lamb chops with cannelloni filled with lamb shoulder; braised rabbit with poppy seed tagliatelle; and fresh ricotta and nettle ravioli.

The lunch menu is similar to that at dinner: five of the nine main courses are available, as well as six starters. In addition, there are several luncheon salads and five sandwiches: a croque monsieur (Virginia ham and Gruyere cheese on toasted brioche); hamburger with cheddar and Nueske bacon, a remarkable smoked version from Wisconsin; a smoked duck panini; a BLT with arugula and a spicy garlic mayonnaise; and a gravlax club with avocado, iceberg lettuce and root-vegetable chips.

The bar menu of soup, salads, bruschetta, oysters, some sandwiches, beef tartare and other small plates, is available all day.

Poste’s wine list is well chosen with an eye for affordable bottles. Wines by the glass, with some excellent choices from all over the world, range from $7 to $11.

The service at Poste is professional, well informed and courteous, but can be a bit slow at times, particularly in the side room.

For New Year’s Eve, the chef will prepare two special menus for two seatings. The first from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. is a three-course menu ($50 per person) with such dishes as smoked quail, roasted venison and Meyer lemon pudding. For the second seating, from 7:30 on, he will offer a five-course feast for $80, with a champagne toast at midnight. There will be live jazz all evening.

Poste has a lively animation, especially when something is going on at the nearby MCI Center. It’s informal and stylish. The locale is beautiful and Chef Weland’s food does honor to the elegant surroundings.

RESTAURANT: Poste, 555 Eighth St. NW; 202/783-6060.

HOURS: Lunch, 11:30.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday and until 9 p.m. Sunday

PRICE: Starters, $7 to $14; main courses, $16.to $20 (lunch), $16 to $27 (dinner); sandwiches and lunch salads, $10 to $14.

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking difficult to impossible, especially on nights when there’s an event at the MCI Center; valet parking at dinner, $10

ACCESS: Wheelchair access through Hotel Monaco

METRO: Gallery Place

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