Extra Virgin: A Little Goes a Long Way
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Sep. 8, 2006
By and large, Extra Virgin lives down to its name -- and that's the good news.
It's always a little suspicious when a restaurant is named after a food because it suggests either a rather strained concept menu or an obsessive chef. Besides, with a name like Extra Virgin, as Willard would say, it has to be good -- from the oil up.
Fortunately, the concept sticks to the conceit level without going overboard into artificiality. Neither the decor nor the food goes much over the "drizzle" point, especially once you get past the appetizers. And though the food isn't great, it is pretty good, and the atmosphere even better. Whether one considers the village at Shirlington a true or packaged main street, Extra Virgin has proved its worth as a neighborhood hangout.
The decor is actually rather restrained, more metaphoric than overt. There's a water wall, pale olive-color leather banquettes, some abstractly urn-curved upholstery and mixed-nut (or rather olive-pit-colored) tile with a trail of green through it, but it's all comfortably offset by wine-dark curtains and a handsome, substantial bottle-bejeweled bar.
The menu has shrugged off a little of its ambition since the restaurant opened last summer, and in most cases the one-fewer-ingredient rule has proved an advantage. Ravioli stuffed with veal ragu and tossed in a sage and butter sauce is simply fine and didn't truly need the excessive addition of Parmesan. (In comparison, a previous chef's dish of ricotta dumplings with lobster and broccoli rabe went off, like Lord Rupert, in all directions, a little sweet, a little salty and a little bitter.)
Bolognese sauce has unfairly lost its good reputation among American diners -- it was the model for the abjectly dull hamburger-in-tomato-sauce glop that kept greasy spoons in business -- but it's actually a quite honorable recipe when restored to its rightful mix of meats. Pork is a requisite, and incorporating veal as well as beef is a nicety that Extra Virgin observes. The ragu is a bit sparse on the seasonings and on the traditional dash of cream, and the meat would have more presence minced rather than ground, but it's tasty and comes over fresh and toothsome taglerini. And there's not a teaspoon of extra oil on the plate.
A roasted Vidalia onion stuffed with sausage and mozzarella and plunked down over sun-dried tomato sauce is also surprisingly "dry," and the hollowed-out onion seems to have been kindly blanched of its meager acid before baking.
Extra Virgin makes a lot of its own ingredients, and respectably: mozzarella (mild and pressed), bread of various types served with puddles of olive oil, Parmesan and ground pepper, and most important the pasta. (Listing the Caesar salad dressing as house-made seems a little pushy, but in the "Kitchen Confidential" era, maybe it's worth knowing that this is craft, not Kraft.) Bruschetta, for which that extra virgin stuff is essential, is a fine bar bite.
Wood-fired pizzas are good, with a tasty crust, although not always left in the oven until toasted quite through (and a margherita was one-third of a flag short, being bereft of basil). Calamari can be ordered either fried (ungreasy and admirably generous) or grilled, in which case the drizzle of oil is chili-infused and a smart twist.
There are slips. Pancetta-wrapped shrimp is a better idea than a dish, at least when roasted in the wood-burning oven where the shrimp gets overdone (and the full-body wrap is a little more salt than it can stand; a smaller strip would be safer). The percentage of lumps in the crab cakes is good, but to bind them with Old Bay is to make the meat moot. The rice in the lobster risotto was cooked to the ideal texture, and the flavor was good, but some of the lobster meat had the washed-out texture of over-iced shellfish.
The veal chop -- for once cooked exactly as ordered and carefully seasoned -- arrived awash in a deep, dark porcini reduction that testified to several steps in preparation; but the potent scent of both garlic and truffle oil (in the mashed potatoes) on top of the mushrooms was rather more unsettling than appetizing. Less is more, especially with that family of hung-poultry aromas. And the escarole side, which was also drenched in sauce and almost indistinguishable, had been floured before sauteing and still wore a coat of powder. The same unfinished flouring marred the shrimp and scallops in the frutti de mare, and the spicy tomato sauce had been salted once too often, but the freshness of the linguini lifted the dish again.
To its serious credit, however, Extra Virgin has that human factor, a particularly attractive staff, that makes a lot of this less annoying -- but for one last flippancy. The wine list is fair, and the choice by the glass reasonably broad, but whoever wrote the beverage list "for mature audiences" needs to grow up. My tolerance for cutesiness is limited at best and has been sorely taxed recently, but the joke about the Viagra cocktail giving new meaning to "hard liquor" lost me altogether. And wait till someone has to explain the "missionary" recipe.
Extra Virgin offers live music (a mix of jazz, R&B, some classic covers) most weekends.