A successful merger in Cleveland Park
Ardeo + Bardeo = polish and promise
By Tom Sietsema
March 20, 2011
Ashok Bajaj never does anything halfway. When Washington's most visible restaurateur decided his side-by-side eateries in Cleveland Park - the American-themed Ardeo and the wine-oriented Bardeo - needed refreshing, he knocked out the wall separating them, united them with a zinc bar, installed a stone pizza oven, replaced carpet with concrete and hung handsome photographs where outdated murals used to be.
One million dollars later, just before Thanksgiving, he welcomed diners to a single establishment, Ardeo + Bardeo. It was different, but not exactly what Bajaj had been aiming for: "I want to be the best restaurant in the neighborhood," he had declared. In January, he replaced chef Alex McWilliams with Nate Garyantes, 37, the former executive sous-chef at the innovative Minibar in Penn Quarter.
Not long after, what had been respectable turned into something rousing.
Moody lighting helps. So does a warm reception at the door. If you end up near the glowing oven in the rear of what used to be Bardeo, consider yourself lucky; it's one of the best tables in the house.
As you might expect of a new restaurant in 2011, liquids get a lot of attention. Cocktails are up to the minute (tequila and grapefruit juice with a nip of agave syrup has become my habit), and $15 flights of three wines encourage drinkers to see the world - well, at least parts of France, Italy and the United States.
Then there's the chicken soup. It's unexpected - and marvelous. The deep bowl of tender chicken, hominy, sliced avocado and green chili broth pulsing with heat is both beautiful and deeply comforting: Mexico as summoned by Martha Stewart.
Is schnitzel the new panko? In recent weeks, I've spied chicken schnitzel on the brunch menu at Tabard Inn and have sampled scallop schnitzel here. Lightly pressed and crumbed, the large coins of seafood are finished with a splash of apple cider vinaigrette.
The pizza crusts are no match for those of the region's specialists, but garlicky rock shrimp, drifts of creme fraiche and sheer lemon slices together - my favorite pizza topping at Ardeo + Bardeo - tend to throw a party in your mouth.
Yes, the new guy is offering charcuterie, like everyone else, but you'd be remiss not to sample two items that distinguish themselves from the fat pack: bresaola, if only for the chance to try the air-dried beef's horseradish-spiked potato salad, and fried head cheese, a rich disk set off with a tiny quail egg.
Can't afford Italy? Garyantes's pastas bring Italy to you. Forced to choose only one from the handful, I'd opt for house-made black pepper fettuccine tossed with braised shredded pork shoulder. It's tangy with tomato, sweet with onion and garnished with a crisp sail of fried pancetta. Sauteed gnocchi make a cameo appearance in a very good salad of spinach and braised fennel dressed with a frothy truffle vinaigrette.
Not everyone is digging the revision. (My one design gripe is the streaked dimpled floor, which looks as if a dozen children in freshly polished boots have run through the place.) But habitues of Ardeo in particular should know that they can still get a hamburger for $12 (on buttered brioche, with bacon made there) and that the service is more polished than ever.
There have been strange disappointments, such as one evening's damp and dull duck breast that appeared to have been cooked by a hair dryer, and oxtail ravioli that tucked only a hint of meat in wrappers that gave my jaw a workout. Next! Tangy braised collard greens and a light biscuit do their best to support fried chicken that is admirably crisp and piping hot but goes blank in the mouth. Sometimes the lemon meringue pie bursts with sunshine and tang; other times, it shocks with an overdose of sugar. (The pecan pie, an elegant round of nuts and goo, is lovely.)
Ardeo + Bardeo is not yet "the best restaurant in the neighborhood." But what's wrong with being one of Washington's most enhanced places to sip and sup?
Before he became a chef, Nate Garyantes served in the Army (1992-1995).