It was cutting-edge when the two-story dining room with the giant mermaid sculpture and an exhibition kitchen helmed by Jeff Tunks set sail in 1998. Remember his novel tuna tartare, splashed with coconut milk, ginger and jalapeno peppers and cleverly served in a coconut shell? Or the delectable Chinese-style smoked lobster with crispy spinach? It wasn't just the food that set the crowd-pleasing restaurant apart. Its location, away from the traditional action on K Street, also spoke to a revitalization occurring downtown. When the Beaux-Arts-style behemoth turned 10, Tunks thought it could use some freshening, subsequently hiring the talented Brendan Cox from Circle Bistro to take over the kitchen and announcing that "nothing is sacred for us." I waited several months for the new guy to settle in and got a surprise when I showed up for dinner: The "new" DC Coast tasted pretty much like the old one, which had slipped into ordinariness in recent seasons. But even more-recent meals uncovered some slapdash products, including chewy scorched octopus, overcooked shrimp and a signature that seemed to be resting on its laurels: That lobster was awash in soy sauce, and its fried spinach was limp. Is that the price to be paid when you're cooking for a potential audience of hundreds? Cox is a veteran of intimate restaurants, after all. On a more appealing note, a diner can also find a prettily arranged chopped salad; tender house-made gnocchi draped in meaty Bolognese; and a mussel soup, clean and creamy and set off with a garlicky cover of toasted bread crumbs. And for delicious drama, there's a fine souffle for dessert. My risk-free recipe for success at DC Coast is to order a cocktail (they're well made) and something simple (think crab cakes) and bask in the glow of some of the sunniest servers around. All help a diner overlook a bread basket that evokes a time when good loaves were impossible to find in Washington, and a room that could use some freshening, too.
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