- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

Cafe Trope, named for the French Riviera town of St. Tropez, calls itself French Caribbean. Cafe Trope has little to do with St. Tropez, but the food is based on classic French cooking, with strong, spicy Caribbean influences, and it’s done very well.

The decor has changed minimally from that of its predecessor, 21 P, on a corner of 21st and P streets Northwest, near Dupont Circle. The main dining room is a few steps down from the glassed-in terrace by the sidewalk. A few small tables keep the bar company. The artwork by local French-African artist Jojo Fekwa is cheerful; the lighting is flattering, and there’s good food and wine at reasonable prices.

Chef-owner Howsoon Cham, a native of Gambia, manages the kitchen. He has worked with Jeffrey Buben of Vidalia and Bistro Bis and Peter Smith of PS7, and he’s the owner of Red Ginger in Georgetown. He fears no spice. Portions are small, somewhere between small plates and regular entree plates. The menu is divided into categories: salads, vegetarian dishes, poultry, meat and seafood. Each category contains both starters and main courses.

The menu is ambitious, with about three dozen dishes, not counting desserts. It’s a fine mix of seafood, meat, salads and half a dozen vegetarian dishes, which include snow-pea linguini over a puree of eggplant and lentils, and a salad of quinoa, pumpkin and spinach.

Spinach is the base for several of the salads, including an excellent pear and Roquefort salad, a combination of spinach, walnuts and hearts of palm, with a few thin slices of pear and a sprinkling of cheese dressed with an excellent tart vinaigrette.

Spinach is in the chicken curry as well. Properly wilted, it appears with panko-fried chicken or with braised veal cheeks. The spicy roasted pork salad is an onion-and-spinach salad sprinkled with a few slivers of raw carrots and topped with two small pieces of roast pork. The pork is deliciously juicy and flavorful.

Other salads include marinated artichokes and zucchini; shredded chicken and celery; seared salmon salad and marinated zucchini with garbanzo beans.

The lobster bisque is an excellent starter. It’s not as rich as bisques can be, but it has been made with lobster shells, and the flavor is strong and complex. The lump crabmeat in the soup makes a perfect complement. For an appetizer on the sweeter side, coconut French toast with foie gras and cranberry jam is a tasty combination of flavors and textures.

A full range of chicken, meat and fish dishes shows Mr. Cham’s culinary talent. Roast loin of venison comes with parsnip potato puree, radish slaw and a raisin-port-wine sauce; spiced duck is served with green beans, walnuts, tomatoes and a blood-orange reduction. Artichoke and chicken croquettes are accompanied by a mango mustard tartar sauce.

The rack of lamb is outstanding — a perfectly cooked, tender double lamb chop served atop a dice of vegetables and accompanied by a delicate mint pistou.

Jerk-chicken lollipops are drumsticks seasoned with that most traditional of Caribbean seasonings and served over a hash of cabbage, onion and potato. Rum- and cider-cured pork tenderloin is one of the chef’s signature dishes.

The fish menu offers a lump crab cake with avocado and roasted corn salsa; mussels in a tangy tomato and curry leaf broth; and wild salmon with dill. The stuffed lobster tail — a bargain at $14 — is enhanced with a classic sauce Nantua.

Sides, priced at $4, include both sweet and white potato puree and wonderful spicy collard greens. Diners with a taste for greens should try Mr. Cham’s version.

There’s nothing small-plate about the desserts, which include a fine, rich chocolate lava cake and an interesting version of bread pudding laced with coconut, both served with vanilla-bean ice cream. Coconut spices the cream-cheese frosting on a banana cupcake.

Cafe Trope’s menu is the same at lunch and dinner. The wine list is a good mix of international wines at reasonable prices. Service can be a bit disorganized, but the restaurant is in its infancy and should settle down soon. Cafe Trope should be a winner in the Dupont area.

RESTAURANT:Cafe Trope, 2100 P St. NW, 202/223-9335

HOURS:Dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

PRICES: Salads and vegetarian dishes $7 to $9; meat and seafood $9 to $15; desserts $7

CREDIT CARDS: Major credit cards

PARKING: Limited street parking, $8 valet parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Dupont Circle.

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