- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 5, 2002

Chef-restaurateur Geoffrey Tracy has a talent for turning the tables, so to speak, transforming moribund spaces into lively, popular restaurants. He did it with Chef Geoff's on New Mexico Avenue, and he's doing it again with his new Chef Geoff's Downtown on 13th Street, between E and F, under the auspices of executive chef Johnny Monis.

Chef Geoff's Downtown is a large space, with a jolly bar near the entrance and a big-screen television set, booths and tables left from the days when this was the Sporting News Grille. As at the original Chef Geoff's, the waiters are young, alert, accommodating, good-humored and pleasantly knowledgeable about food and wine.

The restaurant is informal, just the sort of place to meet friends or colleagues for a lunch or dinner without pretensions. The food and service are good, and the prices are right, too.

As at Chef Geoff's uptown, the wine list is eclectic and well-priced and offers a full range of wines at about $7 per glass and $25 a bottle.

Many of the dishes at the new restaurant open since mid-September resemble those at the original, with slight modifications: Spring rolls, quesadillas, salmon, pasta and tuna all appear on both menus but in slightly different guise.

At the downtown restaurant, main courses tend to be better than the appetizers, a turnabout from most Washington restaurants. The exception is red-curry roasted mussels in a delicious, slightly spicy coconut-milk broth. The preparation is among the best in town fragrant, fresh, sweet and spicy at the same time and utterly delicious. It's available as a main course, but a dish readily can be divided as a starter.

The quesadilla filling of crabmeat and a thin coating of brie is good, but the encasing tortilla has been fried in oil that is neither fresh nor first-quality. It's OK if you scrape out the filling, but that defeats the point of the dish, which would be fine if better oil (or even butter) were used.

The duck spring rolls, which resemble cigars rather than rolls, lack the delicacy and crispiness of their uptown cousins. As with the quesadillas, the oil used to fry the rolls leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. The filling is exclusively shredded duck (the missing vegetables are heaped in a little mound on the side), making the rolls somewhat heavy and dry, although the passion-fruit dipping sauce helps.

Among the salads, an appetizer of beet tartare with pistachios and goat cheese is mild and pleasant, although not very pretty to look at because the beets have a tendency to fall apart.

A salad of Belgian endive, blue cheese, walnuts and sliced pears in a light vinaigrette, akin to a salad at the uptown restaurant, is a winner. It's a great starter, not so heavy as to dampen the appetite, and just enough to whet it.

Main courses are excellent, whether meat or fish. For red-meat lovers, the mustard-seed-crusted grilled New York strip steak is a treat, full of flavor, well-cooked and served on a bed of fresh spinach with potatoes that have been combined with blue cheese, an unusual but successful marriage.

Pork tenderloin rubbed with black tea is outstanding. The meat is served slightly pink, tender and juicy in a huckleberry reduction that lends just the right touch of sweetness. The accompanying roast potatoes and onions and the slices of thin asparagus (just slightly crunchy) are first-rate.

Crusted entrees seem to be the executive chef's favorites: cinnamon-crusted duck; pistachio-crusted rack of lamb, potato-and cumin-crusted salmon, in addition to the steak. The salmon is cooked to order and is very good, enhanced by a fine balsamic butter sauce. Chopped hazelnuts and raisins are incorporated into the fresh spinach served with the fish. It's an excellent combination of flavors and textures. The dish would be even better without the crust, which adds little.

The downtown menu also includes a couple of pasta dishes, grilled tuna, pan-roasted chicken and two dinner salads a Cobb salad with seared steak and a calamari Caesar.

The kitchen prepares grilled pizzas, cooked not in a wood-burning oven but in a regular oven, with such toppings as arugula, tomato, goat cheese and olive tapenade, chicken and prosciutto with spinach and mozzarella, or barbecue pork and smoked ham with Cheddar cheese. In addition, there are sandwiches for dinner as well as lunch, such as corn-crusted crab cake, roast turkey, and Cheddar and bacon. Roast beef, roast pork and a salmon burger are available only for lunch. An excellent sandwich of roasted mushroom with tomato and blue cheese is rich and filling and a good combination.

Of course, Chef Geoff's makes hamburgers downtown, just as it does at the uptown eatery, and they are always good, served with cheese and bacon (and so popular that the uptown Geoff's actually ran out of hamburger meat one recent night, akin to a newspaper running out of ink).

Although it's difficult to get a burger rare, it doesn't seem to matter if the meat is cooked a little more than ordered because the burgers always taste great. During the week, the downtown burgers are available at the bar between 4 and 7 p.m. for $5 and grilled pizzas for $8.

The restaurant is across 13th Street from the Warner Theatre. It offers an attractive theater special for $23.95, available daily from 4 to 6:30 p.m. The menu includes a choice of salad or soup, a choice of salmon, duck tagliatelle, chicken or portobello pappardelle and a choice of desserts. Or you can just sit at the bar and have one of those great hamburgers for $5 if the day and time are right.

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