- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The Mandarin Oriental hotel has arrived in town. For about a month, it has been presiding over the Southwest waterfront in a complex faintly reminiscent of Washington Harbour at the foot of Wisconsin Avenue. The hotel is on Maryland Avenue, between 12th and 14th streets; it is difficult to get to but is accessible from either Maine Avenue or 12th Street.

The hotel has a stunning lobby, stylish and elegant. The art on the walls harks to Asian themes and styles; the tall, graceful orchid arrangements temper the severity of the marble and wood. Don’t miss the large, whimsical painting in the lobby, by Chinese artist Zhong Yang Huang, depicting a pretty Chinese girl in traditional dress on a swing surrounded by monkeys flying over a view of Washington. This is the year of the monkey; monkeys are thought to bring good luck. Hence the monkeys flying over Washington for the opening of the new hotel. It’s a charmer.

The hotel’s main restaurant, Signature, will not open until autumn. In the meantime, the elegant Cafe MoZU, with Tokyo-born chef Hidemasa Yamamoto at the helm, is open for business. The cafe is simple and elegant, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Washington Channel, the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial.

Decorated in beige and cream, it has a cool and sophisticated ambience, and much of the food has the same feeling. (A cloakroom is needed, especially when winter comes.) The menu, albeit on the pretentious side, is nevertheless an interesting melange of French, Asian and Pacific Rim cuisines, with strong Japanese accents. It is strong on fish dishes.

The beginnings and endings are the shining stars at Cafe MoZU. What comes in between fails to live up to the promise of the appetizers.

Tuna tartare is half a dozen little mounds of chopped dark red raw tuna, fresh, straightforward and delicious, on a slightly warm sushi roll, served on a narrow rectangular white plate. It’s a beautiful, non-filling starter in a graceful presentation.

A beet carpaccio is similarly lovely and tasty. Two circles of thinly sliced baby beets, one of golden beets and one of red beets, surround a small mound of baby greens and sliced scallops, marinated in sake and dressed with a fine vinaigrette.

The Asian theme continues in a fat, crispy spring roll stuffed with crabmeat, cabbage, leeks and mushrooms. It’s a delicate yet substantial rendering of an Asian staple.

A daily special of two jumbo fresh shrimp in a creamy sauce with tiny cubes of vegetables was superb, a perfect example of classic French combined with nouvelle American cuisines.

Starters include shark fin soup, oysters six ways and salads incorporating unusual elements such as celery sprouts, braised lotus root and Japanese cucumbers. Another Asian-inspired appetizer is shrimp-and-broccoli wonton in a lobster broth with lemon-grass essence. From the European side comes a lobster stew with morel mushrooms, sweetbreads and sea urchin.

Of the main courses we tried, the only one up to par was the rack of lamb. The meat was splendid, cooked as ordered and fork-tender. The lamb was mild; the pepper crust served it well.

The Kobe beefsteak, which had been marinated in shinshu miso, was untenably salty. Unlike the wonderfully tender lamb, the meat was on the chewy side, something Kobe beef should never be. A real disappointment.

A boneless, crispy fried whole bass, although impressive looking on the plate, consisted mostly of the crisp coating. What there was of the fish had little flavor. The spicy bean sauce on which the fish rested was so salty as to be inedible.

The vegetarian dish of crispy eggplant with risotto, grilled mushrooms, Chinese broccoli and tofu is ill-conceived, the various elements failing to connect or blend with one another. Rice with edame is good, as are the grilled mushrooms, but the broccoli and four slices of tofu add nothing.

The eggplant consists of two lengthwise slices of tempura eggplant, which could have been good except that the eggplant was not cooked, and eggplant is one of the few vegetables that cannot be enjoyed as a crisp vegetable.

Perhaps we would have had better luck with the sauteed black cod, the steamed snapper, the lobster or the striped bass, but the entrees we chose did not live up to the promise of the appetizers.

Pastry chef James Satterwhite redeemed the evening with his excellent desserts. We tried a milk-chocolate raspberry napoleon with star anise ice cream and a black-and-white martini shake. Both were delicious. The former is a rich mix of light pastry and chocolate cream with a thin cover of milk chocolate and a spoonful of raspberries on the side. The anise-flavored ice cream is almost superfluous.

The martini is like a parfait in a martini glass: chocolate and caramel pots de creme with whipped cream. The combination of flavors and the silky-smooth puddings is lovely.

Service is cordial and attentive, but the kitchen can be slow in sending out the dishes ordered. A 45-minute wait between courses is too long. The wine list is extensive and international with nothing less than $34 and many bottles more than $1,000. Wines by the glass range from $9 to $14.

Prices at Cafe MoZU are reasonable, considering the quality of the food and the care that goes into the presentation. What will happen in Signature once it opens after Labor Day remains to be seen.

RESTAURANT: Cafe MoZU, Mandarin Oriental hotel, 1330 Maryland Ave. SW, 202/787-6040.

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 6 to 10:30 p.m. daily

PRICES: Appetizers $7 to $12 (lunch), $7 to $14 (dinner); entrees $12 to $19 (lunch), $19 to $32 (dinner); desserts $7 to $9 (lunch), $12 (dinner)

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Some street parking; valet parking $7 with validation for three hours

METRO: L’Enfant Plaza (Orange and Blue lines)

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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