- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 12, 2002

The neighborhood is hot, the building is gorgeous, and the food is pretty good at Poste, the posh new restaurant on Eighth Street NW in the newly swinging deep downtown.
The restaurant is housed in what was the mail-sorting room of the General Post Office from 1841 to 1899. In the early 20th century, it was home to the Tariff Commission. The new Monaco Hotel occupies the rest of the Tariff Building, Washington's first all marble structure.
Poste, though under separate management, serves as the hotel's dining room (and serves breakfast). The main entrance to the restaurant is in the middle of the block on Eighth between E and F streets, through a grand porte-cochere, once used to take delivery of mail by horse and carriage. The name is French for "post office."
The elegance of the original elements of the building, such as the 16-foot-high cast iron ceilings, picture windows and original skylights, has been restored and incorporated into the restaurant. Poste is elegant, simple and stylish with beautiful wooden floors and wood accents. Various shades of brown and gold are used throughout. Cool jazz a little on the loud side is in the background.
If, however, you happen to be seated in the side room, beware of the icy air-conditioning. Even the waiters and maitre d' suggest sitting away from the windows to avoid the vents below the windows. Repeated requests to reduce the cold air were ignored.
Service at Poste is willing but slow, inexperienced and at times confused. It took 10 minutes to get a waiter's attention to order a drink; another 10 minutes to get a glass of water or piece of bread (which, by the way, is first rate). We were at our table fully an hour before the first course arrived one recent evening. It may be difficult to get a competent wait staff with so many new restaurants opening, or training the staff has not been adequate, but whatever the reason, it's essential to the success of any sophisticated newcomer that service be prompt and professional.
When the food finally arrived, it was nothing like as hot as the neighborhood; at best, lukewarm. Although dishes are made with good, fresh ingredients and are well prepared, they are almost invariably underspiced, bordering on the bland.
A first course of roasted pepper tart with eggplant and goat cheese was a delicious beginning, even though the pastry was on the soggy side. The combination of peppers and eggplant with the mild cheese is a fine one, and the dish is appropriately served at room temperature.
An original starter of striped bass and tuna tartare served on truly paper-thin slices of beef carpaccio is outstanding. The fish are chopped and spiced separately and curiously complement the beef. An unusual, but successful combination.
Salade nicoise is untraditional in that the vegetables string beans, potatoes, tomatoes, olives and even a sprinkling of egg are sliced into thin rounds or chopped into small dice topped with an assortment of field greens. Slices of excellent seared tuna are served on the side. It's a fine, refreshing salad, but where is the garlic in the vinaigrette? Mediterranean dishes need a bit of pungency.
Main courses include skate, seldom seen on Washington menus, served with tomatoes, roasted eggplant, chickpeas and olives. The dish lacks the delicacy of the classic French version with black butter, but the fish is fresh and well prepared.
Braised beef short rib is a rich, flavorful dish more a winter than summer entree. The Poste kitchen does a good job; the accompanying mustard greens and corn hash go well with the meat.
Crab cakes, served with a good caper aioli (again missing the essential garlic) are made of fresh, shell-free crab with a minimum of filling. They are nicely broiled.
A lunchtime special of penne pasta with a pleasant, if bland, sauce of large shrimp, fennel and tomatoes proved to be an agreeable light entree.
The dinner menu includes roast chicken, pork cassoulet, halibut, salmon, steak and lamb chops; risotto is available at lunch and dinner; and sandwiches (grilled steak, roast lamb on flatbread, cheeseburgers and a croque monsieur of ham and cheese on toasted brioche) appear on the lunch menu. Lunch and dinner menus include a daily special.
A blueberry and blackberry cobbler was a warm, good dessert, easily shared by two. Although the menu still refers to the blue and black cobbler, our waitress informed us that it is currently made with apples instead of blackberries. Similarly an apricot tart tatin is now made with plums. Seasons change. The tart has nothing whatsoever to do with a real tarte Tatin of buttery carmelized fruit covered with pastry for baking and then reversed for serving. At Poste it is a round of puff pastry (as in the goat cheese tart) topped with lightly sauteed plum quarters. It's a sweet, pleasant dessert, and the scoop of vanilla ice cream that comes with the tart is excellent, but don't expect the real thing.
Poste has a nice selection of wines by the glass, ranging from $6 for a Cotes du Rhone or Montes chardonnay to $9 for a Ramsay pinot noir or Hogue viognier.
Poste executive chef Jon Mathieson has left and the search is on for a replacement. It's hard to tell what will happen when the new chef is found, but for now, Poste has an attractive menu and good food. If the staff can reduce the disorganization and bring service up to snuff, it may well become a restaurant to deserve its beautifully restored quarters.


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