A new Spring Valley restaurant becomes a neighborhood club
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, November 6, 2005
** and 1/2 (out of four stars)
Is Dahlia a public restaurant or a private club? One visit to the shopping center venue finds so much air-kissing and hand-waving that I imagine myself at a fancy block party where everyone knows everyone. I'm half-expecting someone to exclaim, "You look mahvelous, dahling!" On another occasion, I spot chef-owner David Scribner ensconced at a table, chatting up diners who are obviously familiar to him.
"I'm one person removed from every person in the dining room," Scribner later tells me during a telephone conversation. He's semi-serious. A native Washingtonian and a long-ago student at St. Albans, he grew up not far from the Spring Valley restaurant he took over in August from the Greek-accented Melio's. A lot of customers -- affluent ones, judging from the smart clothes, taut skin and overheard conversations -- also know his father, Norman Scribner, the veteran artistic director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington. Add to the bubbly scene a neighborhood sorely in need of more places to eat and the result is a busy -- and noisy -- community center.
"You can't tell your life secrets here," I catch a woman whispering to her companion. "Too bad," her acquaintance responds. "That's what I was planning to do!" The women are chatty until their food arrives. Watching them admire the kitchen's straightforward efforts, then slowly savor each bite of the dishes before them, reminds me that most people don't need a circus of ingredients to wow them. And having tasted what these diners ordered, I share their sentiments. Dahlia's bruschetta slathered with brandade and garnished with buttery mushrooms makes a lovely, if strapping, appetizer, while the veal Bolognese -- a crumble of meat sauce over linguine -- tastes as if it has come straight from Italy.
An alumnus of the jazzy Felix in Adams Morgan, Scribner most recently cooked at Smith Point in Georgetown, a solid American restaurant that eventually became a watering hole frequented by the Bush twins. According to Scribner, both Felix and Smith Point are recognized primarily as night spots. "I was completely overshadowed by the bar scene," he says. That's definitely not the case at Dahlia, where what used to be the bar has been turned into a nonsmoking dining area, and wine orders outpace anything that might get shaken or stirred behind a counter. "Food is what's driving this place."
I'll second the chef's claim. The sign outside looks temporary, and the dining room decor amounts to a few nature photos taken by Scribner. No one would come here for the design, but a lot of people would go out of their way for Dahlia's roast chicken. Bathed in fresh herbs, garlic, olive oil and a splash of soy sauce, the chicken is seared on the stove top, where it takes on a golden crust, then is finished in a super-hot pizza oven. The result is unabashed succulence, with crisp bits of garlic clinging to the skin and flesh that remains utterly moist from bite to bite. Braised bok choy and roast potato frame the entree, which amounts to home cooking, only with more finesse.
Along with Nicholas Shinton, a former sous chef, Scribner originally envisioned a restaurant without a general manager, the money for which was used to hire an additional chef, T.J. Obias, late of the acclaimed Campton Place in San Francisco. The idea was for the three friends to take turns cooking and greeting, but Scribner quickly learned that he needed all hands in the kitchen to keep the food flowing. While he's searching for a manager, he and his buddies serve food and take customer comments in person.
Scribner and pals aren't walking any culinary tightropes, just serving really good food. As the top toque puts it, "We're taking the basics and doing them as well as we can." One of the best examples of that philosophy is Dahlia's pizzas, which share the characteristics of all great pies: The crust is good enough to eat by itself, and the toppings are first-rate. I made but a small dent in the dozen or so possibilities, but I was quite happy with a pizza arranged with tender scallops, crushed red pepper and bacon -- a soft-crisp, sweet-salty-zingy quilt of flavor and texture.
A few highlights from Smith Point's good old days have been incorporated into the menu at Dahlia, including seared scallops atop a yellow dollop of coarse grits. Like that scallop pizza, this entree plays sweet off salt, thanks to an apple-cider vinaigrette and pink folds of prosciutto (the real deal, from Parma) in its presentation. Another Scribner signature arrives in the form of rectangles of deep-red tuna presented with sticky rice and a pale green moat of wasabi-spiked creme fraiche. Don't be fooled by the pretty green accent, which delivers a sinus-clearing jolt to the palate. "Ouch!" is followed by, "Bring it on!" And lunch finds a delectable crab cake inside a toasted bun, with escorts of fresh coleslaw and unpleasantly mealy fries that are improved by a dip in basil or sun-dried tomato mayonnaise.
Desserts have been wonderful -- and not so. One dinner I devour a chocolate cake, decadent but not overly sweet. This is noteworthy, given that I've already cleaned two plates of food and am not much of a chocolate eater. Two weeks later, I order the dessert again, take one bite and put my fork down -- no need to waste calories on such dry stuff. A perfect panna cotta with summery peaches is divine. Less lovable: a soapy-tasting caramel creme brulee infused with salt. There's nothing strange about using salt to enhance a dessert -- plenty of haute restaurants use a few fluffy grains of fleur de sel or other gourmet salt to balance the sweet accents in their last course -- but in this case, the sodium dominates like a bully.
Dahlia has a few other kinks to straighten. Rib-eye steak glistens with herb butter but is nevertheless bland, and its drift of under-seasoned sweet potato puree brings to mind a jar of Gerber's. And the austere room could use a touch more attention. But guess what? I can't wait to sink my teeth into whatever the chefs have in store for us. At Dahlia, simple is frequently sublime.