Restaurants in The InTowner
The InTowner
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Fair Bistro Fare: Ulah Bistro

By Alexandra Greeley

Almost directly across U Street from one of the neighborhood’s pioneer restaurants — Addie Green’s The Islander, famed for its Caribbean flair and fare — Ulah Bistro is the third in the restaurant family of owner Med Lahlou, the proprieter of Stoney’s in Logan Circle and Tunnnicliff’s on Capitol Hill. These siblings, like Ulah, stress good-old American comfort food, and at Ulah, you’ll find an assortment of burgers, pizzas, entrée salads, and a few other goodies, including steak, grilled salmon, and seared tuna.

As U Street becomes more citified, it’s not surprising to find the likes of restaurants such as Ulah opening up, appealing as it does to the twentysomethings in the area who like to party until the very wee-est hours. It’s got all the hippness you might want: dim lights, partial brick walls, flickering (faux) candles, an open kitchen, and a lounge-dining area upstairs. Presumably upstairs guests receive the same menu. And at first glance, Ulah seems like the place you really, really want to love, locking its phone number onto speed dial; you’ll probably want to — or need to — make reservations any day now.

But it may well be that the décor far outpaces the menu, for as far as happening food and cutting-edge cuisine goes, you will find trendier and better fare elsewhere. Take the fried calamari served with a garlicky mayo-type sauce. At first bite, these seem crisp, but as they cool, the crunch fades and the calamari rings turn rather limp. You may even notice after a few mouthfuls that your friend is leaving her portion — yes, one calamari appetizer is enough for two — virtually untouched. Hmmm . . . now what?

You can always turn to the bread container, for here the kitchen shines. Instead of slices of baguette or tasty muffins, you get a wire cage with pizza wedges, hot and buttery and even garlicky. These are so good that they will disappear fast; do we dare ask for seconds? We decided not.

Perhaps your best bet, after all, are the pizza selections, though you won’t find any wacky pie combos, unless you create your own. My friend did, with loads of cheese that fairly dripped off each bubbly slice. Otherwise, your choices, except for the crabmeat-topped Ulah pizza with garlic and cherry tomatoes, seem fairly predictable, even if going under a different name. Pies range in flavors from the classic Margharita (mozzarella, tomato, and Parmesan cheese) to the veggie-delicious ratatouille, with its topping of eggplant, tomatoes, onion, zucchini, and green and red peppers. Crusts are tender, making these pies contenders in DC’s pizza wars.

But skip past the Tex-Mex chicken salad, an oddly assembled and strangely seasoned dish — well, not really seasoned, as I think the chef forgot the ranch dressing. Lacking such add-ons as black beans, corn kernels, taco chips, sliced scallions, diced tomatoes, and cubed avocados, this big bowl is more American chicken salad than anything Mexican. Topping the cut-up lettuce in one large chunk is a piece of grilled chicken breast sporting a dollop of sour cream. Problem is, the chicken is whole, which means you need to slice through it on a bed of lettuce — a bit tricky. As for the “warm bread base” described in the menu, it’s four pizza wedges lining the bowl, the tastiest part of the salad.

Dessert choices are limited, admitted the waitress, including apple pie, a chocolate layer cake, and ice cream. Having discussed cacao production during dinner (yes, really), we decided on the chocolate cake, a towering and layered wedge topped with a squiggle of ersatz whipped cream. Too much for two, and not a winning creation. Too bad, for above all desserts, anything chocolate should rule.

The service tended toward the erratic, probably because of the sudden arrival of several groups. We tried often to move from entrée to dessert, and then from dessert to bill, but the staff seemed a bit flustered and overwrought, or perhaps myopic.

True, it’s early days yet here, and as the kitchen and waitstaff polish their acts, Ulah may become the wanna-go U Street destination. Let’s wait and see.

Ulah Bistro Restaurant and Lounge / 1214 U St., NW; (202) 234-0123. Hours: Mon.-Thu., 11am-2am; Fri. & Sat., 11am-3am; Sun., 10am-2am. Entrée price range: $14-$22; pizzas, $11-$14.