By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005
"Divino" is a tough term to live up to, and it was tempting to dismiss this Argentine grill-cum-tapas-lounge as rather too self-satisfied, especially early on; but then one dish on the menu -- the grilled sweetbreads with lemon sauce -- made a really good case for the superlative. Perfectly drained and cleaned, as lightly floured as a good scallopini and just crunchy on the outside, these custardy slices easily challenge any classic version in town -- and the serving is generous enough for any fanatic.
No, perhaps that's not the first thing most people look for; but it's one of the many unexpected pleasures of this increasingly assured Bethesda hangout, which nightly brings together young cocktail crowds, 30- and 40-something couples (of various gender combinations) and elegant Argentine expats with at least a fair display of ease. And between the traditional grilled meats and the competent paellas, it's likely the best Argentine restaurant Washington has had in a long time.
It's a striking room, but not a showy one, with vermilion walls and bright, primary-colored abstract paintings, and the exposed grill kitchen as the centerpiece. There is a little sofa seating up front by the bar, a handful of small, round bistro tables for two (often set for three) in the middle and larger tables toward the back. There's a touch or two of mod-South American romance, such as the tango noir black shirts the waiters wear, but it's kept to a minimum.
Tapas are the star of the bar, more than 40 hot and cold choices, and at happy hour the kitchen gets you started with a little platter of nibblies such as good, not-too-briny olives; hearts of palm; sauteed mushrooms; and a piece of sausage. Among the best choices are a spring-delicate vegetable terrine with an even more reticent white asparagus sauce; a pinwheel of various lightly salty Spanish cheeses (or the cheese and cured ham combo); stuffed roasted piquillo peppers; grilled calamari; the mildly spicy chorizo or the darker, mustier blood sausage; and grilled sardines.
Baked artichoke bottoms topped with a sort of baked seafood salad are a nice concept, though the seafood needs more seasoning, and a plate of grilled baby octopus would have been fine if the octopuses themselves had had any seasoning at all (or had been drizzled with the balsamic vinaigrette on the greens beneath). A serving of fried calamari was tough and dull, not surprising considering the rings of squid were more nearly the size of onion rings. The empanadas have a dry, flaky pastry and well-drained beef stuffing.
A few of the tapas also appear as appetizers on the dining room menu, but it also offers such niceties as disks of baked eggplant stuffed with goat cheese, a subtly woody mushroom mousse with asparagus sauce and those astonishing sweetbreads.
But it's beef that made the Pampas famous, and justly so. The quality of the meat and its unfussy fleshiness are fine -- for some patrons, perhaps, more accustomed to Divino neighbors Ruth's Chris and Morton's, a surprising introduction to the muscular flavor and cleaner mouth feel of less fatty cuts. Such lean and assertive choices as the short ribs, cut across the rack so that the bones show through in a neat jacquard pattern; the smaller (six-ounce) New York strip called churrasco; and especially the skirt steak, the girdle muscle that is the original fajita meat, have a fresher, brighter taste than the oversize, over-pampered and over-sauced slabs of the big-ticket beef palaces. Even the more "American-style" steaks, the 12-ounce New York beefsteak, the T-bone and the tenderloin, a cut that is not generally as well served by grilling, have a distinctly less cereal-fed flavor.
The classic showpiece is the parrillada, or mixed grill, for two: short ribs, sweetbreads, blood sausage, chorizo and skirt steak, plus the kitchen's admirable french fries. (The sides at Divino, including light rather than creamy mashed potatoes, sauteed zucchini and yellow squash, and pan-roasted asparagus, are uniformly good.) On the other hand, both the relative leanness, thickness (or rather, thinness) and the Argentine tradition of grilling can sometimes make it difficult to get an order really rare. A hugely generous dish of paillard of venison, deferentially sauced with a light wine glaze, seemed to have been placed on too cool a section of grill as a result of a reiterated request for rareness; it was somehow both grayish and unseared on the surface and fully gray and well done inside. (A particular shame, as it toughened a very nice piece of venison.) A medium skirt steak was also cooked beyond its order, though less drastically. The short ribs were correctly, if conservatively, medium rare.
Other good choices include a pair of split semi-boned quail, whose dark and sometimes slightly muddy flavor is given a precise edge by a lemony marinade. Fish of the day is unexpectedly good; one night's thick piece of rockfish was perfectly cooked.
Divino offers a half-dozen types of paella, including the musty, squid ink-tinted paella negra; a lobster version; and a traditional valenciana with chorizo, chicken, duck and pork. All but the vegetarian version and the closely related lobster-seafood cazuela are prepared for two people, but there are tapas servings of the seafood and valenciana versions available.
Despite the smoothed-out cooking, Divino is still prone to slight but disconcerting slips of service: a cheap and rough-edged, diner-style, stainless steel spoon mixed in with the silver-plate; three chipped plates among the four in a tapas platter; a chorizo missing its chimichurri sauce; a forgotten drink order. One night -- early in the evening, admittedly -- a tapas-size paella was tired and chewy, leftover from lunch; it would have been better to suggest waiting awhile for the kitchen to make up fresh dishes. (In fact, there are evenings when the restaurant seems just a little understaffed, and the managers a trifle cool and caste-conscious.) An order of grilled calamari with tequila sauce turned up as fried calamari and without its lemon. A flan had been allowed to develop a surface scum while cooling, and the dish arrived trailing its untrimmed and plasticine veil. And with the variety of tapas in particular, a choice of more than a half-dozen wines by the glass -- and a sherry or two beyond Dry Sack -- would be welcome.
But on a good night, Divino's virtues easily overwhelm its shortcomings. Over time, it's a place you warm to, especially as you find your favorites; and that -- gradually -- may warm to you