Crème de la Crème
[from April 2006 issue]

It's not often you come across a genuine culinary surprise, especially if you are primed for a dining disappointment. I'd heard earlier that the food was only so-so, and at that, it was over-priced. But the evening’s exterior appearance made the restaurant's interior look dark, mysterious, and beckoning. So, why not? Skip the brighter, next-door eatery and settle down in U Street's Creme (pronounced "cream" rather than as the French do the accent mark over the "e") to a Terrell Danley meal, a basically Southern experience with some Danley overtones.

A good decision. My dining companion explained that Danley has worked around town -- Clyde's, BET, and Sam & Harry's, to mention a few -- before he settled down into this U Street location, confirming that U Street - as predicted by The Islander's Addie Green down the street - is becoming the city's hottest destination. Really hot.

And finding Creme only confirms this truth. As slim as an envelope and as polished as a cut diamond, the interior sparkles with three shades of brown, a mirrored wall, and a tiny kitchen that extends into the main room. There stands Danley, dark-garbed and overseeing the plates as the staff sets them on the counter, ready for service. Between times, he peruses the crowd, and greets familiar faces along the way. In the background, modern jazz.

Management has cleverly sectioned the menu into "First Things First . . . as opposed to . . ." -- the obvious appetizer list, which precedes the "Larger Plates . . . More Money" entrée choices. I suppose the only way to appraise this menu is with an eye on your hunger meter. Keep it simple and trimmed down with such starters as the chicken noodle soup and a crab cake, or mix and match? We chose the latter.

By the way, do include the chicken noodle soup, as clean and clear a broth as you'll find, filled with broad eggy noodles and chunks of meat and fresh veggies, and garnished by lengths of fresh scallions. How I love soups like this, so reminiscent of nursery food and the innocent days of childhood. On the other hand, you can get a bit more adult with Danley's interpretation of the way-too-clichéd Caesar salad, here boldly presented with a thin pastry cup filled with shredded fresh Parmesan and anchovy paste atop the bed of crispy romaine -- yes, the original Caesar salad recipe called for anchovies, a critical addition to an otherwise dreary composition of romaine lettuce and croutons-. The dressing is thick and creamy and the cheese shreds, plentiful. If you are a Caesar salad addict, you'll love this version.

We did toy with the idea of adding the "U" Street Mussels appetizer to our meal, but my friend had just had mussels elsewhere, and wanted something new and challenging. So -- entrées. Your choices range from the homey Mama Laura's roast chicken with levels of seasoning and lots of white rice, to two oddities: “The Nine Dollar Hot Dog” made with Kobe beef and served with fat fries, or the “Big Kahuna Burger” where Kobe beef once again makes an appearance. We figured with Danley's cooking we should head to the bigger dishes such as the shrimp and grits with andouille sausage, all served mounded into a large white bowl. Yummy shrimp, plenty of fine seasonings, and love those slices of sausage! But my choice was better still, or maybe it's just that anything with short ribs will win the day for me. In that vein, be sure to seriously consider his “Meat & Potatoes Americana,” a medley of a truly meaty, truly tender though slightly salty short rib with its meat sliced off the bone but perched on it. This comes with a wedge of creamy potatoes au gratin and a scoop of roasted veggies, Chinese snow peas among them. Rich, succulent, and very filling, this is an entrée meant for the rugged meat-eaters around town, though even ladies will accept the challenge. It's just sooo delicious.

Desserts, the "Sweet Repast so, . . . Pass the Sweets!" on the flip side of the entrée listing herald “The Sniglet,” a sweet bite of something, up to the more caloric and filling “Chocolate Quad,” a four-way expression of chocolateness. Not listed, but available that night was coconut cake. Few things seem more Southern and more appealing at a meal's end, and this version is no disappointment. A rich poundcake-like slice is glazed with a lemony coating, frosted with thick, buttery frosting textured with shredded coconut, and served with spoonfuls of lemon-accented fresh fruit. A winner!

What else can I say? Head to U Street and feast. Or brunch on weekends.

Crème Café Lounge, 1322 U St., NW; tel., 234-1884. Dinner, Mon.-Thu., 6-11pm, Fri. & Sat. to 11:30pm; Brunch, Sat., 11am-3pm, Sun. to 4pm. Entrée price range: $9-$18.

Copyright (c) 2006 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Alexandra Greeley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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