- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2006

On a mild spring evening, Tabard Inn’s outdoor dining is hard to beat. The tables are surrounded by brick walls and ivy crawling toward the sky. The lights are dim, the service attentive, the wine list impressive and the food superb at this Dupont Circle restaurant.

The oysters on the half shell, served with a classic mignonette sauce (vinegar, shallot and cracked black pepper), are fresh and delivered to the restaurant from Maine.

Another nice seafood starter is the gingered fried calamari and fresh anchovies. The batter is thin but peppered with fresh grated ginger and cilantro. Condiments include a green curry aioli and an eggplant salad, also with ginger and cilantro. The fresh spices and fried flavors combine perfectly.

The prosciutto and arugula salad with pecans, shavings of Parmesan and blood-orange vinaigrette is fresh and nicely arranged — each ingredient separate — on a rectangular white plate.

Serving sizes are relatively small and conducive to a leisurely two- or three-course meal. If you’re planning to come on a weekend night, though, make sure to call well in advance. This is true for Sunday brunch, too.

Next up were a couple of delicious entrees, the creamy seafood and corn stew and the grilled bison rib-eye, which was incredible tender, a commendable achievement because bison is very lean and easily turns to rubber. Not so here. Aside from juicy, tender steak prepared perfectly to order (medium rare), a bordelaise sauce gave the meat extra flavor and also combined nicely with the truffle pecorino potato puree and barely steamed fresh haricots verts, or baby green beans.

The creamy seafood and corn stew included prepared-with-care shrimp, scallops, salmon, halibut, clams, mussels, fennel, English peas and seafood sausage, which is exactly the way it sounds. The creamy broth is very mild — maybe a bit too mild — and lets the delicate seafood flavors speak for themselves.

The entree menu, which also features jumbo lump crab cakes and seared organic salmon fillet, consists of 11 dishes. Chef Pedro Matamoros, who has been at the restaurant seven years (three years as head chef and before that as sous chef), says he makes only slight changes, often related to seasonal offerings.

“Right now is a good time for halibut; pretty soon we’ll have monkfish on the menu,” Mr. Matamoros says. Holidays call for specials, and on Cinco de Mayo, a lime and tequila sorbet was served.

The menu also has some staples that have remained in place for years, he says. “We have a lot of regulars, and they love their crab cakes, salmon and steak. I can’t take them off the menu, or I’ll hear about it.”

The meal could be capped here, but that would be a shame because pastry chef Huw Griffiths’ creations are delightful. The vanilla apple strudel with homemade toffee ice cream arrives looking more like a burrito than a strudel. The delicate pastry shell and its apple mash only hint at sweet, but when served with the divine toffee ice cream prove to be a wonderful choice.

The chocolate Kahlua almond molten cake with roasted banana ice cream is superrich, the Kahlua adding interest. The homemade banana ice cream combined with rich chocolate and Kahlua? You guessed it. It’s perfect.

The service as Tabard Inn was flawless. The food arrived quickly, and empty plates disappeared seamlessly. Recommendations were made, and dishes were explained, but always politely and without a hint of pushiness. We asked to leave our patio table midmeal for the lounge, where jazz bassist Victor Dvoskin was performing some low-key tunes (only on Sundays). No problem. We had dessert and coffee in the lounge and settled our checks there.

The lounge is one of several nicely furnished indoor dining areas (some with fireplaces) which also include the main dining area, complete with white tablecloths and a bar, and a couple of private rooms for meetings and bridal showers and such.

The Tabard Inn is, well, also an inn and whether guests stay overnight or simply enjoy a meal on the patio, a visit here feels like being out of town; the food is delicious, people are friendly and accommodating, the view is pleasant. Life is good and effortless for a moment.

RESTAURANT: Tabard Inn, 1739 N St. NW; 202/331-8528

HOURS: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday; dinner, 6 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday

PRICES: Starters, $2.05 (per oyster on the half-shell) to $11; main courses, $10 to $15 (lunch) and $18 to $28 (dinner); desserts $6.5 to $10

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

METRO: Dupont Circle (Red Line)

PARKING: Street parking

ACCESS: Not easily wheelchair accessible (possible through alley and kitchen to avoid few steps up to dining room); no restroom on the dining room floor

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