The old brownstone at 1336 U St. NW was in no shape for the ambitious plans that Omer and Melih Buyukbayrak had in mind. The structure, built circa 1892 for $4,000, had stood idle for “close to a decade” after a fire ripped through the space in the mid-1990s, says Omer Buyukbayrak. But the brothers, former owners of Meze in Adams Morgan, wanted a place of their own, and they wanted it on U Street.
So they bought the decrepit row house and spent $3 million and countless hours dealing with the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board to renovate the building. Within 14 months, the Buyukbayraks turned the eyesore into a minimalist, multistory destination spot aimed at adding new flavors to a neighborhood dining scene built on fried foods, chili half-smokes, and spongy ovals of injera.
But the build-out was only half the job. The flavors they wanted to add to U Street required just as much time to develop—and involved a history far more complex than that of a late-19th-century brownstone. With their Tabaq Bistro, which opened last August, the Buyukbayraks decided to venture beyond their Turkish roots and explore the cuisines of the greater Mediterranean. Then they granted themselves even more freedom by attaching that late-20th-century buzzword—fusion—to their cooking approach.
“Fusion” is a loaded word, largely due to those critics who think a country’s cuisine somehow evolves in a Cryovac bag, untouched by outside forces, such as invading armies or influxes of immigrants. Middle Eastern cuisine, however, has embraced so many different cultures that it’s almost impossible to trace a dish’s true origin. Take, for example, stuffed grape leaves: Greek, right? The ancient Greeks might have been the first to stuff fig leaves, but dolmas actually originated in Turkey—and the rice shoved into those grape leaves likely came from Persia.
The vast interactive nature of Mediterranean cooking demands respect from any chef who dares to wander into the region. When José Andrés dipped his toe into the Mediterranean with Zaytinya, he did so with caution. He and others with Proximo Restaurants pored over cookbooks and spent weeks in Greece and Turkey. Andrés “ate all over the place,” says Rob Wilder, co-founder of Proximo, “and he was able to cook with some of the great chefs,” including Aglaia Kremezi. Still, when it came time to open his Aegean shock-and-awe operation, Andrés didn’t want to rely solely on his new skills, so he hired Jorge Chicas, who was manning the kitchen at Neyla, the Mediterranean grill in Georgetown.
Omer didn’t feel the same need to go on tour before opening Tabaq. The brothers put their trust in 32-year-old chef Daniel Labonne, a close friend. “I believe in him,” says Omer, “and I believe in his ideas.” Besides, the 36-year-old co-owner adds, “we have a great knowledge of the (Turkish) cuisine...and we shared that with him.”
At first sniff, Labonne might seem an odd choice to lead a Mediterranean-leaning kitchen. Before Tabaq, the French-trained Labonne, a native of Martinique, tended the stoves at the African restaurant Wazuri, which closed in January 2004. But then you check out the rest of his résumé: Born into a restaurant family, Labonne studied cooking for four years on Martinique and for another six years in Toulouse, France, including three years of international cuisines. He worked as a sous chef at La Belle Aurore in the South of France, where he got his first chance to turn out Mediterranean dishes in a respected kitchen.
Just as important, in the months before Tabaq’s opening, Labonne worked his ass off, not only tending pots at Zanzibar and La Chaumiere but also preparing for his new gig. He spent 14 months studying Mediterranean cuisines and preparing dishes for the Buyukbayraks and others, who passed judgment on what should make the final, meze-dominated menu at Tabaq. “I can cook different cuisines so easy. It’s a gift I have,” Labonne says.
The chef can mostly back up that boast. He flashes, on occasion, the sort of fusion brilliance you expect from a restaurant with a football-stadium retractable roof on its “glass terrace” and a designer-martini menu ($13 a glass, and you don’t get to keep the glass). Labonne’s vertical vegetable-and-pastirma “tower” is nearly as impressive as the view from the terrace; the dish, with its geological layers of feta, sun-dried tomatoes, and zucchini (all topped with curls of the cured Turkish beef), packs plenty of punch into a compact cylinder. It also fuses architectural design to a cuisine not known for imaginative presentations.
While Labonne tends to restrain himself with the more traditional Turkish dishes, whether a small plate of kofte or an oval dish of underwhelming pide, he does display impressive powers of free-association when introducing other cuisines. He stakes out French territory with his foie gras with poached pear and potato purée, which is pure hedonistic pleasure. (It may even be a legit entry; Labonne could make a claim for foie gras’ Egyptian origins, which would bring us back to the Mediterranean.) Likewise, the chef’s sweet-and-creamy lobster risotto seems like a thematic stretch, but the kitchen attempts to give it a Middle Eastern accent with a pomegranate reduction sauce, which is a dandy idea when the fruit’s in season and available (which it wasn’t on my visit).
The menu’s conceptual breakdown is most evident with the desserts, which you could find at a good French pâtisserie. Don’t worry about such incongruities, though. It feels as if Labonne wants to write a new chapter in the already sizable Mediterranean cookbook. He’s not there yet, but history’s on his side.
Tabaq Bistro, 1336 U Street NW, 202-265-0965.—Tim Carman
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