- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Washington’s U Street has the Barcelona vibe. It’s loud, hip and the fun starts around midnight. That’s why the new Ulah Bistro fits so perfectly.

The two-story bistro with exposed-brick walls offers groovy jazz, two bars and a lounge with Barcelona-style chairs upstairs. There’s even a late-night menu for those who get the munchies in the wee hours - the kitchen is open until 2 a.m.

The prices are right, the menu is long and varied and the portions are surprisingly generous, but the food preparation and quality are uneven.

The ahi tuna tartar, nicely paired with a seaweed salad and wasabi sauce, could have been a little fresher, and the “American pate” (think meatloaf) was a bit off on flavor and texture.

The bistro frites were on the dry side.

The Ulah salad - arugula with pine nuts, Gorgonzola cheese, portobello mushrooms and a lemon vinaigrette - though, was fresh, and the flavors and textures combined nicely, but it could’ve used some more dressing.

Ulah Bistro, like Stoney’s Bar and Grill in Logan Circle and Tunicliff’s on Capitol Hill, is owned by Med Lahlou, and the trio of restaurants share several qualities, both good and bad. (Ulah is derived from U Street and the proprietor’s surname.)

In general, they’re all laid-back and friendly, ideal for a quick bite to eat and a drink or two before a sports event or show. Food-wise, they’re predictable at best and in several cases they disappoint.

Ulah’s 14-ounce New York strip steak looked great when it was served - thick, juicy and cooked as ordered, but it turned out to be flavorless and a tad chewy.

It’s probably not the goal of Mr. Lahlou to be at the forefront of culinary innovation, and if you arrive with low expectations of the food and high expectations on the atmosphere, you’ll probably be satisifed.

For some reason “bistro” raises expectations, which it shouldn’t since it really just connotes a modest European-style cafe. On the other hand, some of the city’s recently opened bistros - like Brasserie Beck and Westend Bistro - are outstanding and compared to these, Ulah would’ve done better as Ulah’s Kitchen or Ulah’s Place.

Alas, the bistro also offers fire-roasted pizzas, 10 types of sandwiches and burgers and brunch items that include a smoked salmon platter and Bloody Marys. Speaking of drinks, Ulah serves a dozen beers on tap, including Peroni and Corsendonk Abbey Pale Ale, and seven kinds of mojitos.

We tried the Ulah mojito, which includes a splash of Grand Marnier orange liqueur. It was smooth, fresh and citrusy and perfect for a hot summer night. The bistro opens large windows and doors to the jumping street scene on nights without excessive rain or steamy heat.

The restaurant has far too few sweet endings - only four desserts. We had the strange tall slice of layered chocolate cake, which is more pleasing to the eye than the palate, and an adequate Key lime pie.

Come to Ulah not for food innovation but for speedy service, a nice ambience and a varied menu.

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