- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Eureka! A genuine neighborhood restaurant. Cafe Saint-Ex, named for Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the French aviator and writer who disappeared on a reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean in 1944, is reminiscent of the cozy restaurants that abound in the neighborhoods of San Francisco.

Who would have thought, 10 years ago, that the corner of 14th and T streets Northwest would be a corner in a trendy neighborhood. Yet it is. There are several small restaurants on the block of high-end home decor shops and boutiques filled with funky items lining 14th Street nearby.

Cafe Saint-Ex has a hot bar scene; it’s a fine restaurant; and downstairs, beginning at 10 nightly, DJs spin all sorts of music from classic jazz to rock and soul funk at Gate 54. (To check who’s on, go to www.saint-ex.com.)

The street-floor restaurant is small — a dozen tables for two or four. Tables for two can be tiny, marble-topped bistro tables, but even those are cozy and private. There’s lots of seating at the bar and along the front window. Early in the evening, the bar is packed with bright young things, and again later, but between 7 and 8, the early crowd departs and there’s a window of respite when tables become available.

Even if you have to wait for a table, it’s worth it for the food prepared by young chef Barton Seaver. The relatively short menu blends Mediterranean simplicity with modern American culinary concepts, but all dishes are sophisticated, many with surprising ingredients and unique touches. Mr. Seaver uses organic produce, fresh fish and meat, and herbs to maximum effect. The wood-grilled items are particularly good.

Calamari, artichokes, meat and fish all retain a lovely, lightly smoky flavor from the grilling over wood. Three whole calamari are served on a bed of curly endive with cubed potatoes and chopped green beans in a walnut pesto sauce. The warm calamari are tender and beautifully paired with the cool vegetables, all in a pesto dressing.

Three medium-sized artichoke halves, also wood grilled, are served with a nicely garlicky aioli sauce. The artichokes were still hard and could have cooked a little longer to bring out their flavor and make them easier to eat, but even as a crunchy vegetable, the dish is a good one.

Seared mussels in white wine is not the dish you expect. The sauce is a rich blend of wine, tomatoes, spices and thin slices of chorizo. The thick sauce has a nice kick and the Spanish sausage adds complexity.

Equally delicious is a dish of potato gnocchi in a light sauce of brown butter with small chunks of chestnuts and a touch of sage. The gnocchi are soft but not mushy and blend well with the chestnuts and the subtle butter sauce. It’s a fine dish and can be ordered as an appetizer or a main course.

Mr. Seaver has a magic touch with soup. His cream of parsnip soup is made without cream but has a smooth consistency. It’s first rate. It, too, packs a slight spicy kick. The flavor is pure yet complex, enhanced with a drizzle of red wine reduction.

Tuna and rockfish are wood-grilled. The former is served with an excellent, slightly crunchy cauliflower risotto, black olives and raisins; the latter with brussels sprouts combined with balsamic vinegar and pine nuts.

A wood-grilled rib-eye steak is served with sweet potato fries, and a pork chop, also wood-grilled, is accompanied by a white bean puree and candied shallots. Roast chicken is good in flavor but on the tough side (the mark of organic chicken).

None of the main courses is available at lunch. The lunch menu consists of bruschetta, hummus, soup of the day with a mixed salad, the mussels and calamari and several sandwiches: grilled steak, chicken salad, fried green tomato BLT and a grilled hamburger, as well as a very good pale house smoked salmon sandwich on good peasant bread with delicate, soft goat cheese and ripe tomatoes. The BLT, burger and smoked salmon sandwiches are available in the evening as well.

A fine, rich creme brulee with a soupcon of thyme fragrance in the cream and an unusual soft apple bread pudding, laced with a little almond flavor and a dollop of whipped cream, make fine finishes to an excellent meal.

The wines, reasonably priced, include good selections from France, Spain, California, Italy, New Zealand and Australia. Wine and beer specials are noted on a blackboard above the bar.

Mike Benson, the owner, comes to his interest in airplanes through his family — his father and grandfather were pilots. The brick walls are covered with art deco memorabilia, propellers, a flying pig and other artifacts that amuse the eye and make for lively conversation. “He who would travel happily must travel light,” wrote Count Antoine de Saint-Exupery. A trip through Barton Seaver’s menu is a happy flight.

RESTAURANT: Cafe Saint-Ex, 1847 14th St. NW; 202/265-7839 (reservations not accepted due to the small size of the restaurant)

HOURS: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; dinner, 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, until 10 p.m. Sunday and Monday; brunch, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

PRICES: Lunch, $6 to $11; dinner, starters $7 to $9, main courses $15 to $23; desserts, $7; pre-theater three-course prix fixe dinner, $26 until 7 p.m. and $30 thereafter

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards.

ACCESS: Bar-restaurant wheelchair accessible; Gate 54 is not.

PARKING: Metered street parking; Reeves Center Garage, 2000 14th St. NW, available for parking

METRO: U Street (Green and Yellow lines)

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