We arrived around 8 on a warm summer's night. Midtown's celebrated Tuli Bistro was abuzz with energy and, from the outside looking in, there was a magic to the whole thing.
It was cool. It was crowded. There was just the right amount of sizzle in the air.
Folks sat at the counter before the open kitchen, where you could hear the food cook and smell it and see the smoke. Other patrons happily squeezed into the enclosed patio, where it's impossibly small – but in a way, that's pretty cool, too.
A chef pulled a pan from the wood-burning oven. Another shaped dough for a pizza and plunked down the fresh mozzarella with precision. A server sang along to '80s music as he carried his plates. How fun.
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But when we got inside and headed for our table, the magic began to fade.
At its best, dining out puts us in a dream state, where there are no problems or complaints or distractions – the real world without the reality. People show up to help us, and they are smiling, smart and into what they are doing. They like us before getting to know us.
There is no clutter in a dream state, either, and at a restaurant, that means no open shelves with plastic bottles of supplies like we saw at Tuli, no box of plastic wrap left on the counter or coffee cups stacked haphazardly atop the espresso machine to make me think about the messes in the real world we are paying to forget.
I was jarred further from that dream state when our server began reciting the specials. It was dark – perhaps she was unaware I could see her. As she spoke, I glanced up from my menu to catch her look away, make a face, roll her eyes and keep talking as if she'd rather be anywhere but here. Was this table service or an eHarmony date? Elsewhere at Tuli, the servers seemed to have enthusiasm, so we were the victims of bad luck.
Tuli Bistro is still a fine restaurant with plenty of nice cooking. The menu has Mediterranean tendencies and American style. It's fresh and seasonal and constantly changing.
But three years after Tuli opened and quickly attracted a slew of loyal followers, we've seen enough in recent months to wonder about its direction, from inconsistency in the kitchen to overconfidence and complacency with the service and the wine program.
The good at this tiny place can be very good. Sitting at the counter for lunch on a weekday was a pleasure – soaking in the energy as the chefs worked so hard, breaking their focus every now and then to chat and ask how we were doing.
The Asian-inspired bahn mi sandwich ($9) with tender pork and crunchy daikon was a bright spot, though something more exotic than mayonnaise on the bread would be an improvement.
For dinner, we loved the exceptionally fresh mussels with smoked bacon. These were close to perfect, just-right chewy and delicious. The same could be said for the juicy, gigantic pork chop with bean and corn succotash that was a clear nod to the influence of Patrick Mulvaney.
The gazpacho was more like salsa and was overwhelmed by the sharp note of raw onion. Our server asked if I wanted the always-entertaining fresh ground pepper show. Turns out it needed salt. But isn't it fun to have someone give a peppermill a couple of halfhearted twists and send the pepper onto your lap?
My bacon-wrapped scallops were $21 – for two scallops. For that price, someone needs to come out on a unicycle and juggle things that are on fire. That was a startling portion, though they were delicious.
There was pizza with excellent cheese but with a crust that needed to go back to the drawing board. Too limp in the middle, and no oven spring to give it the lightness and chewy pull that distinguish Neapolitan pies. The dough needs more work and more time to build flavor the old-fashioned way – letting it ferment, or retard, in the refrigerator for a couple of days or more. This town has too many fine pizzas these days for this one to compete.
A sweet corn risotto with marinated quail nestled on top ($17) could have been stellar. But it lacked the velvety texture for which this dish is beloved. And the nuanced depth of flavors that take so much time and technique to nurture in the pot were obliterated by the tart taste of balsamic vinegar, which was apparently an overdose of "zinfandel-sumac gastrique."
And the wine? $12 for a glass of flabby red that's 20 degrees warmer than it should be suggests a lack of attention to the little things. Why keep open bottles of wine next to where you cook?
If the 80 percent of restaurants out there serving warm wine would invest in a little fridge to keep reds at 60 degrees, we'd all be happier. Reds are best served at "room temperature" – that is, room temperature in one of those chilly European countries that figured this out 200 years ago.
On a later visit for dinner, things evened out – the gazpacho had balance, the risotto was superb and the mussels were exceptional. We also enjoyed a beef stroganoff that was both robust and nuanced.
But this didn't do enough for Tuli Bistro to be considered a can't-miss experience.
When I called to chat about the restaurant, I encountered the talented and thoughtful chef-owner, Adam Pechal, who is busy taking his little success story and making it bigger. Pechal is working out the last details of a deal to open a second restaurant, tentatively called "13," at the Sterling Hotel at 13th and H streets, where Chanterelle shut down months ago.
This is great news for the hotel, for downtown and its restaurant scene. But for Tuli, it seems Pechal may have too much going on to keep his eye on quality control at ground zero.
Bad risotto one night and very good risotto the next only happens when the boss, who clearly knows risotto, is not tasting it and declaring a do-over. One time the wine was warm, the next time it was fine. That can't happen if you want to be in the upper echelon of bistro dining.
And Pechal, who is classically trained and has apprenticed at some very fine restaurants, surely could not have condoned the performance piece masquerading as dessert called S'Mores.
We were told the graham crackers were made in-house, which only drew more attention to the fact that the thick crackers were impossible to break without a chisel.
We poked and pushed on the cracker with our spoon until part of it flew onto the floor and the marshmallow squirted onto the table. We mentioned the impossibility of the dish to our server, who said she had heard the same thing from several others.
So when we returned a couple of weeks later for another shot at bistro greatness, the dessert was still on the menu, and like a couple of knuckleheads, we ordered it again. What is it they say about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? I'm ready to declare this dish s'more trouble than it's worth.
I am reminded of the famous sign in the kitchen of the great French Laundry in Yountville – "sense of urgency." That's what it takes to become great and, more important, to stay that way.
There is still lots to love about Tuli Bistro, but for now we are in a tough situation, forced to downgrade its overall rating while cheering for it to rise again and take its place alongside some of our city's excellent bistros.