- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 6, 2002

Toka Cafe is both more and less than what its name implies. Toka is a Turkish word for connecting, according to Teresa Beeman, who with her Turkish-born husband Nuri Yurt, owns Toka and a Georgetown spa.
Toka is the owners' dream of a what they think Washington needs in restaurant ambience, and they are determined to see it through: sophisticated surroundings to draw an increasingly fussy and well-informed public aware that love is in the details where fine dining is concerned.
The setting is a designer's dream: hard edge and cool light, a downtown Washington aurora borealis at basement level. The staff wears black. Square orange cushions cover white bench seats along one wall. The high-ceilinged white rooms are bathed in rosy and blue hues. The exposed metal ducts and vents are real. A private space in the rear is set off by a large gold curtain. The opaque white fabric squares cover the far wall of the dining room like evanescent ship sails.
There are no flowers or decorative art apart from the furnishings. China, linens and cutlery were chosen as artistic elements. Dinner table coverings are white runners, each with a thin gray stripe that matches the top of the table. The simple white china comes in wonderfully varied shapes. The cutlery fits comfortably in one's hands.
If any art is to come, it will be an Alexander Calder piece, Mrs. Beeman says. She is also overseeing the idea of adding persimmon-colored leather chairs to the mix.
Toka is also eclectic in flavors. The staff is welcoming, but dinner was a bit slow, largely because of staff shortages and a chef who is conscientious about presentations. At one point, the chef even helped out with the service.
Toka opened four months ago, after two years of planning and locating a site large enough. The interior previously a hat and shoe store was gutted, Mrs. Beeman says. The design firm of Group Goetz was hired. The space opened up considerably, leaving room for 102 seats, but the 19th Street site is a quiet one compared with its neighbors. That may change by the time Toka has its sidewalk tables in place, possibly by late summer.
The gustatory delights in this combination bar and restaurant on the same side of the street as Rumors and Smith & Wollensky but a world away in spirit are more enticing than what the black and white banner strung on the facade suggests. (The banner is only temporary; a sleek metal sign will go on the spot.)
The beat in this minimalist haven picks up later in the evening when people drop by to sip cocktails at the bar and listen to live Brazilian music. Toka prides itself on its fancy alcoholic drinks that have names reminiscent of, but not connected to, songs or movie titles such as Red Velvet, Skylark and Georgia Peach.
Chef R.J. Cooper III's cooking deserves a great deal of attention. Billed as "contemporary American cuisine," the offerings stand out largely because of the unusual combination of ingredients.
A modest luncheon entree billed as a grilled open-face lamb sandwich was unusual in taste and form: A mound of tender slices of meat above a few arugula leaves, a portobello mushroom and a slice of olive bread with chickpea salad.
This is one of six entrees, in addition to two soups, two salads and house-cured salmon gravlax. The talents of Mr. Cooper, who worked previously at Washington's New Heights and the Oval Room, really shine at dinner, however, as evidenced in just one of the appetizers, a "variation" of Moulard duck ($14.95). A printed description teases the imagination: rillettes in crisp phyllo with kumquat compote, "prosciutto" (smoked pressed duck) and Asian pear with corn shoots, and foie gras au torchon with apricots. A bit much to tackle, you think, but the arrangement was properly minimalist and Asian in feel, a remarkable display of color and invention.
Another appetizer was soft-shell crab served on white polenta cake, with wild ramps and "roasted spring corn emulsion." Four of the eight entrees were seafood; for one of them, Maine monkfish was enhanced by a smokey coat of applewood bacon. The lamb loin roulade stuffed with sweetbreads and wrapped in spinach and smoked sausage was arrayed appealingly and had a seductive flavor.
The menu will change weekly and with the season, so don't expect these examples to hold up. A tasting menu, at $55 a person, is said to be tops by friends who have sampled it.
Desserts follow a familiar pattern chocolate, shortcake, pastry, fruit except again the combinations are noteworthy for their originality. Where else can you order mille feuille of banana crepe accompanied with pistachios and a passion fruit sabayone gratin? Or a spring melon carpaccio with sauterne gelee, almond milk panacotta and chocolate mint? Nothing ordinary here, not even the extensive wine list carefully chosen by manager Rachel Sergei to reflect the surprise and variety of the food.
Wine glasses are well proportioned, and the portion is generous. A grace note is the request on the menu to please silence "personal communication devices." Connect instead with the pleasures of the palate.


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