- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

Kemble Park Tavern is exactly what we don”t have enough of — an informal, cheerful neighborhood restaurant full of people eating, drinking, chatting and enjoying that elusive good time being had by all.

The tavern, on MacArthur Boulevard Northwest, is the kind of neighborhood place that makes New York, New Orleans and San Francisco so restaurant-friendly. Named for nearby Battery Kemble Park, the tavern was transformed by owners Curtis Fallen and chef James Foss from space occupied for several years by the Starland Cafe.

Tables are arranged along one wall; dark, comfortable booths are arrayed against the opposite wall, and small tables with high-backed armchairs occupy the middle space. The booths are reminiscent of converted stable stalls like those at the old Iron Gate Inn; the high wooden separations make dining quiet enough for intimate conversations.

Service is efficient and friendly. Dishes are served promptly, and what”s on the plate varies. The menu is a nice mix of classic American dishes, with a few variations, such as a lamb gyro sandwich and bok choy as a vegetable side.

The half-dozen plump chicken wings are delicious, cooked just enough to retain their juices and drizzled with an excellent horseradish and honey mustard sauce.

Steaks are the show here: filet mignon, skirt steak, Delmonico and New York strips. At the suggestion of our waiter, we ordered the grilled Delmonico, and it was advice well-taken — a fine tender cut of beef, full of flavor and well-cooked. A few cold grilled onions, a small scoop of dull (and also cold) mashed potatoes and a tired half of a plum tomato kept the meat company. At $29, it seemed a lot for this dish, despite the quality of the steak.

Baby-back ribs are meaty and flavorful, but pork deserves better than excessively sweet barbecue sauce. A good sauce is the secret of good ribs, but this sauce tasted of something off the supermarket shelf. Additional sauce for dipping the ribs is mandatory. The cheese grits served with the ribs lacked character.

Mr. Foss’ version of steak tartare is served in a small Mason jar. The beef is finely chopped, not ground, and topped with the yolk of a quail egg. The raw beef is delicious, if a bit underseasoned. Chopped onions, in particular, are missing, and perhaps some capers, both of which could be served on the side.

The Maryland crab soup is actually a tomato soup with crab. Chicken noodle soup with matzo balls is another option.

Aside from steaks, main courses include grilled lamb chops and a chicken dish with truffle potatoes. Pastas are veal ravioli and cappellini with vegetables. Fish is limited to pan-roasted shrimp with grits and rockfish served with lentils, asparagus and mushrooms.

The menu appropriately lists light tavern dishes such as main-course salads and sandwiches, among the latter a good hamburger and a BLT. The roasted lamb gyro is a fine mix of lamb with chopped cucumber, arugula and tomato with garlic sauce in pita bread. It”s a delicious sandwich; additional sauce can be requested.

The pulled chicken sandwich, though, is dry, despite the barbecue sauce mixed in. Pulled pork is one thing; pulled chicken quite another.

Entree salads are roasted shrimp with celery and watercress; chicken salad with roasted onion, apple and feta cheese; and a filet mignon salad with blue cheese, tomato and grilled potato. A smaller salad of mixed greens with pine nuts, goat cheese and a pleasant lemony dressing is an excellent starter. The goat cheese is mild and creamy, and the greens are fresh and crisp.

A luscious dessert is a rich, sweet, warm butterscotch bread pudding with caramel sauce and sliced bananas. Cinnamon-orange rice pudding brulee is a somewhat thin rice pudding, again served in a small Mason jar, with some crunchy sugary bits on top and a couple of orange segments.

Good service, a fine selection of wines and tasty food in a congenial atmosphere make Kemble Park Tavern a winner.

KEMBLE PARK TAVERN: 5125 MacArthur Blvd. NW, 202/966-5125

HOURS: Dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Appetizers $7 to $14; sandwiches and entree salads $9 to $17; main courses $17 to $30; desserts $9

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking

ACCESS: Not wheelchair acces-sible

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