Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

The Mediterranean Martini

While Tonic’s food is good, it’s the drink that’s the star.

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Tonic is ever so hip. The youngish professionals who crowd the bar animate a sleek, minimalist décor of black and architectural-steel gray that would be at home in South Beach, on Melrose Avenue or even at Bruce’s Body Shop. Large stainless globes hang above the diners like giant ball bearings or hub cabs, and the image of a pool of rippling water is projected on the back wall.

There are eight varieties of martinis ($7) including one called mondo exotica, but they’re all pretty wild. Nowadays, the spirit is almost always vodka, overpowered by sweet and colorful mixes. Our threesome opted for the daily special, a cosmopolitan, but other choices include Godiva chocolate, pineapple, cranberry, raspberry, caramel—the variety is endless.

Tonic definitely is a bar with restaurant attached, but chef Hajez is serious about cooking. He’s from a family that operates a catering business here, and is a graduate of the Charleston branch of the Johnson and Wales culinary school.

The food is tasty, attractively presented and characteristic of Middle East cuisine. Virtually everything is dominated by a pita that resembles pizza in shape and color. It’s good, but by the end of the evening, it can be, like martinis, too much of a good thing, although that may be like complaining about too much cornstarch in a Mexican restaurant.

Because most diners come in with the idea of having a drink and wind up eating, the appetizers play an important role. And it’s on that part of the menu that you’ll find the most variety.

Start with a gyro ($8) and you may not need an entree because the portion’s so filling. The pita-stuffed sandwich can be filled with the traditional thin slices of lamb — the best idea — or chicken, beef or vegetables, each enlivened by tahini, a sesame-based paste, or cucumber-based tzatziki.

The best use of the pita is to brush it with the hummus ($6) in which the ground chickpeas are blended with tomatoes and cucumbers.

Other starters include a salt-and-pepper fried calamari ($7) that comes with a spicy dipping sauce that will have you summoning the staff for more water, or another martini.

Vegetarians will find a number of other choices including an a great starter of sautéed portobello mushrooms ($7), served with small slices of fresh mozzarella and roasted red peppers, and entrée portions of chickpea falafel ($11) and baba ganoush, a puree of eggplant, tahini, olive oil and garlic, garnished with pomegranate seeds.($12).

There are eight reasonably priced entrees ($11 to $15), half of which are kabobs. In addition to the vegetarian variety, the skewers are loaded with pork, chicken and steak, along with tomatoes, onions and green peppers.

Two less well-known Arabic treats are kafta and shawarma, both of which show off the chef’s touch with seasonings. The kafta is a mixture of seasoned ground beef, parsley, red onions and summak, a spice from dried, powdered berries, rolled into small balls. The shawarma blends mild spices, along with onions, tomatoes and tahini sauce, with chicken or beef.

Fatoush, a mix of vegetables, herbs, lemon juice and olive oil, serves both as the house salad ($4) and as a side to the entrees, along with Mediterranean rice and the pita.

Dessert choices ($6) are limited but satisfying: typically a vanilla gelato or raspberry sorbet stylishly served in martini glasses,.

There are only four booths, though a couple of them are large enough to squeeze in a party of 10, plus about a dozen high-top tables next to the bar, where the scent of marinated kabobs competes with the Marlboros. There is no nonsmoking section. S

Don Baker has been reviewing restaurants since he retired as Richmond bureau chief for The Washington Post in ’99. He has worked as a waiter and maitre-d’ and has a dining Web site, diningpro.com. He previously reviewed restaurants for Style in the late ’80s.

Tonic ($$)
14 N. 18th St.
648-4300
Dinner only: Tuesday-Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., bar open to 2 a.m.
Reservations accepted for parties of six or more.

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