Still reaching for the stars
Could Galileo III be here to stay?
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday April 10, 2011
I feared I would never get around to writing a formal critique of one of the most talked-about restaurants in recent memory. And that's not just because Galileo III, rolled out in October by longtime Washington chef Roberto Donna, who announced the project in 2008, took seemingly forever to open.
A lot of chefs mention a launch date and blow the target. What set this missed appointment apart was Donna's spate of legal problems, including his failure to pay meal taxes and employees at two earlier restaurants. Although I'm a big believer in giving people a second and even a third chance, no sooner did Donna, 50, start serving food in this revival of the luxe Italian restaurant that he helmed for six years on 21st Street NW than insiders began whispering that he was once again failing to pay some of his staff. Early hires, they buzzed, were jumping ship.
After a couple of visits in the fall, when I found mostly respectable but familiar cooking, I decided to put the restaurant on the back burner. The last thing I wanted to do was to describe for readers a place that wouldn't be around for long. So I waited for the restaurant and the chef, a native of Italy's Piedmont, to show me they had staying power and something other than doubtful rumors to add to the scene.
They succeeded. More recently, I found splendor in a budino (pudding) that looked just like creme brulee but whose torched surface cracked open to reveal indulgent, near-liquid layers of porcini cream, burrata and Parmesan cheese. I encountered pomp as well in a pretty tower of citrusy pressed tuna, smoked tuna and bottarga rising from a cake made of shiny beads of Sardinian pasta and minced vegetables. Strips of liver seasoned with bay leaves and wine and arranged on a bright yellow circle of soft, soothing polenta had the power to convert people who typically avoid organ meats.
With each visit, the food got better. "I needed to get my confidence back," Donna explains.
Located in the former Butterfield 9, the dining room, bold in colors that suggest autumn, is spread across multiple levels, the most interesting of which for food fans is the sunken downstairs. That's where you can watch Donna, front and center, performing behind a big stainless-steel counter in his open kitchen.
To a couple of women seated nearby, he teasingly cautions, "Don't drink too much wine!" Addressing the members of my posse one night, he calls out, "You're keeping terrible company." I think he was joking. Regardless, and whatever your opinion of Donna, the guy can be a charmer. For veteran customers of the chef's Laboratorio del Galileo, the thrilling restaurant-within-a-restaurant in back of Galileo, seeing him on stage again, interacting with guests, recalls the good old days.
Though it's certainly possible to eat like it's 1999 here, Galileo III has in recent months expanded its already extensive menu to include several tasting menus, all good values.
One is a parade of vegetarian dishes that, although individually interesting, illustrate the limitations of meatless menus in the dead of winter; cheese and pasta were the central figures in four of the six courses. Even so, I enjoyed the pleasant shock of pickled eggplant and julienned roasted peppers playing against buttery burrata in the openers, and the tangy blanket of tomato sauce draped over a later plate of ricotta-stuffed agnolotti. Wild mushrooms, richly flavored with garlic and thyme, beefed up a tangle of pappardelle for another course. Just before dessert, a soft-cooked egg was presented atop sunchoke puree and a creamy cheese sauce. Smooth on smooth and rich on rich, the combination was overkill.
The other tasting menu I sampled is flagged as "Unusual," but if you're as much in love with offal as I am, the term is a misnomer. I vote instead for "Riveting." The supporting evidence starts with winy and fatty veal feet on fingers of potato; moves on to tender lamb tongue with sauteed pearl onions and greens; and gets racier with tiny ravioli filled with lamb's brain and ground chicken, a course that swells with flavor, thanks to rosemary, butter and veal jus in the sauce. The most inspired choice slips a crust of potato flakes on thin slices of sweetbreads, which are mounted on sauteed apples. It was sheer coincidence that I'd made an appointment to get my cholesterol checked the next day. (There's also a pasta tasting, but I tried plenty of noodle dishes from the a la carte menu; minced lamb on feathery spinach fettuccine is among the best.)
A few bores lurk in the crowd of dishes on the regular script. Black ravioli hides a filling of rockfish that tastes like not much of anything; the pasta's wash of butter and pine nuts does little to raise the flavor profile. Come to think of it, the green sauce dappled on rosy slices of hanger steak was also super subtle. There's no faulting the ingredients, though, or the technique.
I've never been able to sneak in here without someone recognizing me, but I'm willing to bet my treatment is typical of what everyone gets: moments of fuss and attention followed by scenes of distraction, such as two waiters huddled in the middle of the dining room, chatting in Italian, or a pour-it-yourself wine routine. But that has always been the case with Galileo, be it No. 1, II or III.
Italian desserts tend to be simple, and those at Galileo III follow that lead. The most animated of the choices is a jiggly panna cotta, its dimpled center flashing yellow (with passion fruit) or red (from raspberry) depending on the season. I'm equally fond of the moist olive oil cake treated to pistachio ice cream. Before anyone says ciao, a plate of delicate polenta cookies, hazelnut meringues and candied lime peels is set on the table.
The dining landscape, and the chef's fortunes, have shifted dramatically since Donna's glory days at Galileo downtown, when the 1996 James Beard award winner was hailed as one of the region's top talents.
Will the restaurant endure? Is this Donna's last chance for success? What began as a soap opera has settled into something more savory, at least for the moment and from my side of the table.
The original Galileo opened in 1984 in Dupont Circle. It moved to its second location in 1990.
Tom Sietsema wrote about Galileo III for an October 2010 First Bite column.
After countless delays and more drama than you can find in an entire season of "True Blood," Galileo III finally opened Oct. 4. The long-awaited Italian restaurant is a nod to two earlier Washington dining rooms of the same name, both helmed by veteran chef Roberto Donna, 49.
It's impossible to write about the arrival of Galileo III, which Donna initially pegged for a spring 2009 launch, without mentioning the elephant in the room. That would be Donna's recent headline-making run-ins with Arlington County, for failing to pay meal taxes at his late Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City, and in the District, where he has faced lawsuits from former employees and investors. Food followers could be forgiven for thinking Donna wasn't ever going to pull off the project.
But here he is - a little rounder and a shade grayer than when we saw him last - tasting and directing and cooking in a new open kitchen that puts him back on stage for the first time since Bebo was shuttered last year.
"I'm persistent," the 1996 James Beard award winner says when asked about the skepticism surrounding the debut of Galileo III. His return, he says, is "like coming out of a black tunnel. I feel 25 again."
His dinner menu is two dozen dishes long and includes much that will be familiar to anyone who dined at the previous Galileo on 21st Street NW, which closed four years ago. On one hand, it's a treat to be reacquainted with Donna's pink round of pork sausage bedded on lentils, and tender stamp-size pasta stuffed with chicken, veal and pork and sauced with butter and fresh sage. Others might feel as though the distractions in his life kept him from coming up with fresher ideas.
Donna says that "people are going to ask for" his previous hits even if they're not listed on a piece of paper, so he might as well offer them. And to be fair, among his new seductions is a savory pudding with the texture of creme caramel. Flavored with Parmigiano-Reggiano, the custard is gilded with fresh burrata and porcini cream before serving. Like the salad showcasing tuna three ways (raw, smoked and as dried roe), the pudding disappears quickly, unlike the listless lamb and beef entrees that follow.
Diners pass a convivial bar before descending to a sunken, 80-seat dining room, warm in orange and brown. Donna says he asked his designer to "take out everything that makes you tense." Among the sunny appointments in the restaurant is Nancy Sabbagh, the chef's wife and roaming goodwill ambassador.
Oct. 13, 2010