The restaurant that replaces Childe Harold doesn't deliver on its promise
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Sept. 28, 2008
Sound Check: 75 decibels (must speak with raised voice)
The custard is smooth as silk and steeped with the flavors of caramel and espresso. A cloud of vanilla-kissed whipped cream lavished with toasted coconut makes what's good, better. To the side of the dreamy dessert sit two chocolate biscotti, punctuated with hazelnuts, that shatter when you bite into them.
Remember that dessert. I know I will. It was the most satisfying thing I ate at Darlington House in Dupont Circle, which comes with an interesting story but fails to satisfy those of us who have come for a meal to match.
Darlington House is the creation of the owners of the nearby Sesto Senso and Cleveland Park Bar & Grill. The new restaurant replaces the popular Childe Harold and takes its name from philanthropist Joseph Darlington, who built the former residence in 1890.
Three floors of public space translate into a trio of eating possibilities. In the Cantina, a few steps down from the sidewalk, updated pub grub and a tavern feel are the draws. Think low ceilings, brick walls, dim lighting and televisions set to CNN and ESPN. A flight of stairs away is the airy and intimate Dining Room and Circle Bar, its cream-colored walls decorated with the attractive work of local photographer Thorne Sirback. The third draw, the second-floor Library, is expected to open soon and now serves as a private party room. Cooking for everyone: Alexander Schulte, 23, who last worked as a line cook at the excellent Modern in New York, and his girlfriend and former classmate at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, pastry chef Monika Padua, 22.
I like their mission statement and applaud the use of local or sustainable ingredients. "Eat Strong, Live Long," Darlington's modern American menu implores customers. But all the earnestness and descriptors don't add up to much on the table.
It takes a few minutes to discover the discord between the food and the design.
"I feel like I'm walking into an inn," a friend says as a clutch of us admire the foyer of the first floor. A starburst of lights hangs over a faux hearth, and a cowhide rug hugs the floor. They create an appealing first impression that only gets better inside the 70-seat dining room. Good help is hard to find, but Darlington House has managed to put together a solid team of greeters, seaters and order-takers. I also like that the wine is served at the optimum temperature and that a gratis snack commences dinner.
The menu, which changes frequently, is far more complicated than it needs to be. Darlington's dozen or so dishes fall into first, second, pasta and entree categories, four groupings with as many prices: $10, $15, $18 and $28, respectively. I'm not sure what the point is. Diners might also be confused by the vague descriptions alongside each choice. A second course of veal sweetbreads, for instance, includes "peas puree, hard egg, pine nut, bagna cauda." It would be helpful if the menu writer gave customers even a glimmer of how those elements would appear. As a featured attraction? As a garnish? In a sauce? To the side?
A recent risotto drew my attention. The menu promoted it in combination with eggplant, mint, goat cheese and tomato (fondue), ingredients that can prompt a Pavlovian response and close a food sale with me. Yet what I got was a dish set on mute. The mint was vague, and so was the goat cheese. It didn't help that the risotto they rode in on was also stiff as starch.
The portions at Darlington House tend to be substantial. Unfortunately, their size only exaggerates the flaws of many of the dishes. That is certainly true of the large swamp of doughy strigoli, cubed potato and green beans served with a wan pesto. A flat and fatty rib-eye steak that would look at home next to a plate of eggs at a diner gets a clump of cloying onions on top. I filled up instead on the plate's roasted herbed potatoes and fresh tomatoes in two colors. The kitchen cooks a nice lamb loin, but the entree loses points for its strangely sweet and pelletlike tomato-flavored spaetzle. The accompaniment could qualify as candy. Golden nuggets of fried sweetbreads in a ring of red beets is best for the paprika-spiked organ meat, which is tasty in a fast-food way.
Not long ago, the dish with the most pulse was cavatelli strewn with crumbled fennel sausage, tomatoes and peas. But my faint excitement was due to the pasta's weak competition at that last meal: a juiceless pork chop overwhelmed by sage, and striped bass teamed with a muddle of bell peppers and tomatoes.
The wine list offers some relief. It's a personal little collection with plenty of choices under $40 and few of the usual suspects. Among the surprises: the hard-to-find roussanne from McCrea Cellars in Washington state.
To a waiter's credit one visit, a friend and I were asked why we were eating so little. "Did anyone preview these dishes?" I wanted to reply. But my job is to offer feedback in print and online rather than at the table. "Saving room for the next course," I said instead.
The downstairs Cantina is fed by the same crew. Small wonder, then, that even the bar's chorizo-stuffed empanadas are on the tame side. The cracker-thin "schizza," or flatbreads, make decent partners to the beers and cocktails, however. One of the better ones is decked out with figs and prosciutto. The pub's "two fisted food" runs to tuna sliders and roast chicken.
Over the past months, I've spent several evenings admiring the way this young restaurant looks and appreciating the hospitality extended by the genial staff. I've also left every meal wishing I had eaten better. Ultimately, Darlington needs more dishes like that custard --- and less of just about everything else.