- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2004

The initial “K” appears to be less a political statement than geographical, based on the location of Kolumbia downtown on K Street NW, or perhaps it’s a design consideration, as co-owner Carolyn Stachowski contends.

Whatever the reason, don’t be put off by the “K.” Kolumbia is the new incarnation of Tarbouche, which chef-owner Jamie Stachowski has owned and run since autumn 2003. Change is good (sometimes). Kolumbia is first class.

The kitchen prepares French-American dishes of the highest order.

Mr. Stachowski, who worked in Beirut for four years, left the Middle East and has reverted to his classic training. His years of working in such revered establishments as Ma Maison in Los Angeles, Le Perigord in New York and Jean-Louis Palladin’s kitchen in Washington have blossomed into extraordinary dishes, reflecting contemporary French and American culinary concepts.

Carolyn Stachowski, who has considerable experience in the restaurant business outside the kitchen, runs the front of the house, where she makes sure her customers are well taken care of.

The delightful hostess, Angelique, goes out of her way to see that guests are well served. On a recent rainy night, she stood guard in a parking space in front of the restaurant while a customer raced across K Street to retrieve his illegally parked car.

Kolumbia is not much changed physically from its predecessor. The entrance to the dining room is through a long, narrow hallway with a marble-topped bar on one side and small booths on the other, opening into an elegant, comfortable room with a high ceiling, raised in the center and illuminated with softly glowing bluish light in the evenings.

The walls are covered with fabric-like golden paper, and the lighting is subdued and pleasing. The sole drawback is that the tables in the booths, both in the dining room and the bar, are too close to the seats, and the leather covered seats, although comfortable, are too low (or maybe the tables are too high).

Service is cordial and well informed. The wine list includes several good bottles by the glass and a fine, varied selection ranging from a $27 Beaujolais Fleurie to a $115 California Alexander Valley cabernet sauvignon among the reds, from a Virginia seyval blanc for $30 to a $95 grand cru Riesling among the whites. Many bottles are in the $30 and $40 range, together with a list of outstanding vintages from California, Italy and France.

The dinner menu consists of about seven appetizers and eight main courses, all interesting. A deliciously refreshing salad of matchstick-thin julienne of cucumber, melon and jicama enhanced with bits of Italian bacon is a fragrant and light summer appetizer with a nice bite in the honey vinaigrette dressing.

Equally delicious is a tart of poached mussels, topped with a crunchy combination of bread crumbs and finely chopped ham on a potato-leek base, perched on a bright yellow saffron reduction. The combination of flavors and textures is extraordinary. Only the mussels stand out, while the other ingredients blend perfectly. The tart is not only unusual in its ingredients, but the crunchy top, the perfectly cooked little mussels and the mild potato-leek base combine seamlessly.

Soups change regularly. A red pepper and tomato soup with a froth of corn and little crab dumplings is delicious; the cold peach soup is imaginative, but given its sweetness more appropriate to finish rather than start the dinner.

Main courses do not disappoint. An entree of five plump, fresh scallops, lightly grilled, sit atop tender ravioli filled with a puree of veal cheeks. The scallops are accompanied by a handful of English peas resting in a bright green coulis of peas with a bit of dill butter for an additional flavor. The dish is so simple and yet a thoughtful combination of very different, delicate elements that again harmonize perfectly.

A plump chicken breast is stuffed with chopped beet greens, a bit of gorgonzola, a smattering of hazelnuts and a touch of olives, giving the cut a bit of complexity. It’s another fine preparation.

Other tempting main courses created by the chef are lobster medallions with gnocchi, fava beans and morel mushrooms, salmon with a lemongrass ginger sauce, halibut with prosciutto and braised endive or horseradish-crusted lamb chops with stuffed grape leaves and celery root puree.

The kitchen offers several composed salads at lunch, such as rare tuna over warm fava beans, spiced chicken kabob or grilled calamari, as well as a half-dozen main courses that include some of the evening dishes.

Remnants of the Middle Eastern menu available at lunch as starters include a selection of four dipping purees, which at a recent meal included hummus, baba ghanouj, carrot and beet purees, little Armenian lamb sausages and samboussek, which resemble Turkish bourek, long, thin crisp pastry with a filling of ground chicken and spices. The samboussek is served with a remoulade sauce of mayonnaise, shallots and spinach, and it’s a delicious appetizer.

The bread at both lunch and dinner is warm, small, fat pitas that are deliciously chewy. Butter and another spread — such as fish roe or a concasse of tomatoes, garlic and basil are served with the little pitas.

Our only disappointment at a recent dinner was a dessert that didn’t measure up to the rest of the meal. The dessert menu includes a molten chocolate cake, rosewater rice pudding brulee, sorbets, a pyramid of hazelnut chocolate and a “fruit composition.”

We chose the fruit composition, a peach tart with a dollop of peach sorbet. The tart was a little dry, with very little fruit and the sorbet tasted more of apricot than peach. Next time, we’ll try the pyramid or the rice pudding brulee. Indeed, there will be a next time, for Kolumbia is a gem, odd spelling and all, a fine restaurant where the unusual becomes the ordinary.

RESTAURANT: Kolumbia, 1801 K St. NW; 202/331-5551.

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Friday and to 11 p.m. Saturday

PRICES: Starters $6 to $12 (lunch), $8 to $14 (dinner); main courses $14 to $22 (lunch), $24 to $35 (dinner); desserts $7

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Farragut North (Red Line); Farragut West (Blue, Orange lines)

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