- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A Scandinavian-Eastern European restaurant in Petworth? Can that be right? Yes, and it’s done right, too.

Kera Carpenter opened W. Domku Bar and Cafe in January, hoping the neighborhood — home to many a carryout joint — would embrace her eclectic concept. It has, for the most part.

“I would say about half of our guests are from the neighborhood. The rest are from other parts of town and from as far away as Annapolis and Baltimore,” Ms. Carpenter says. “We’re trying to give them something they can’t get anywhere else.”

This includes more than a dozen Eastern European and Scandinavian beers, wines from Moldova and Slovakia and flavor-infused aquavits. On a recent night, though, several of the flavors — the menu lists 11, including dill, rose petal and cherry — were not available, which highlights the main problem with the otherwise fun, hip and refreshingly unpredictable W. Domku. (The name means “in the little house,” according to Ms. Carpenter, who once was a Peace Corps volunteer in Poland.) It is uneven, from food and drink availability to service. While friendly, the service is slow. It took about 10 minutes for the drink order to be taken and another 10 for the drinks to arrive. Too long.

Nevertheless, the drinks were tasty, particularly the Zagorka, a delicious full-bodied and smooth Bulgarian lager. Skip the Icelandic Viking, though. It tastes like a Coors Light cut with water.

Domku is not just a place for drinkers; the food is solid and unusual, if not fancy. As Ms. Carpenter would put it, it’s a Scandinavian and Eastern European take on comfort food. She’s right. There’s nothing avant-garde or nouveau about this food. No crazy fusion spices, textures or ingredients. This is home cooking a la Krakow and Stockholm. And it’s good.

The gravlax (which is cured — very nicely — in-house) with sweet mustard, chopped sweet onion, capers and knackebrod is delicious and a fun starter to share: Break off a piece of the crisp bread and make your own little sandwich.

The red beet soup also is very tasty — few spices and intensely beetish — with an unexpected puree texture. The mussels steamed in a cream and aquavit broth were wonderful. The smooth broth, with just a slight touch of alcohol, combined perfectly with the nicely textured mussels. It’s one of the few starters that’s generous enough to double as an entree. Yes, the portions at Domku are in line with the countries of origin. They’re relatively small.

The Georgian eggplant caviar with garlic, tomato and onion is great, but it tastes much like baba ghanouj, except it comes with rye instead of pita bread.

Among entrees, we really liked bigos (a hunter’s stew of Polska kielbasa, braised beef, sauerkraut, tomato and onion). The beef is tender, and the kielbasa has a nice kick to it. It’s not exactly a spring or summer dish, but on a cool early-spring night, it hit the spot.

Then there are the Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes and lingonberry preserves. The meatballs are perfectly seasoned, and the lingonberry preserves, too, are authentic. The mashed potatoes are too soupy, but the flavor (or unflavor, because few or no spices are included) is right. Overall, it’s a nice dish.

The potato, cheese and bacon-filled pirogi were a little disappointing, though, especially when I was expecting the pastry to be sauteed until brown. These were white, almost transparent, like Vietnamese dumplings.

The perfectly prepared seared salmon with braised endive and knedliky (Czech bread dumplings) was a winner. So were our desserts. They included a divine, moist almond torte. Yummy.

That’s not all that Domku offers. It’s also a cool spot where the young and hip use free Internet access while sipping coffee as anything and everything from jazz to rock flows from the speakers. The space seats up to 95 guests — in cozy sofas and armchairs as well as mismatched four-top tables.

The setting includes exposed brick, chandeliers, warm yellows and cool blues, and on display are works by local artists. Large travel photos from places such as Ethiopia, Ukraine and Honduras are in the current display.

The word “eclectic” fits, but it is overused. So we’ll say dining at Domku is fun, tasty and unpredictable, mostly in a great way.

RESTAURANT: W. Domku Bar & Cafe, 821 Upshur St. NW; 202/722-7475

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. (bar stays open until midnight) Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday

PRICES: Starters, $3.50 to $8.50; main courses, $6 to $17; desserts, $5.50 to $7.50; breakfast menu Thursday through Sunday, $1 to $10

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Petworth on the Green Line

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