At new Kora, the pie's the thing
Trattoria's entrees fall flat
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, January 17, 2010
The key to his very good pizza is the water, says Amadou Ouattara. Make that cold water, shares the chef of the youthful Italian-themed Kora in Arlington.
Cold water slows the action of the fresh yeast, he explains, resulting in a thin, crisp crust. And that's exactly what diners can expect when they order pizza in the vast hall that once displayed the work of chefs Roberto Donna (at Bebo Trattoria, whose big wood-fired pizza oven Kora inherited) and Jos Andrs (at Oyamel, a Mexican ode that has since relocated to Washington's Penn Quarter). If you don't order a pie -- which at Kora also benefits from light handling, Italian flour and a hot oak fire -- you'll miss one of the kitchen's strengths. Whether decorated with tomato, roasted eggplant and olives, or scattered with bacon and spinach -- a combination flagged as a BLT -- the beautifully blistered, plate-size pizzas always make me glad to be there.
If only I could say the same about much of the rest of the menu. My meals at Kora have involved more peaks and valleys than the Dolomites. On one excursion, a longtime dining companion tells me he thinks our experience is "the worst I've ever had with you." Another visit, a friend requests that his leftovers be wrapped up for a midnight snack. Abundant portions are among the few constants. So, unfortunately, are servers who drip wine on the table when they pour from the bottle, sometimes forget to deliver bread and alternate between bringing out dishes with lightning speed or so slowly you think your order has been forgotten. (The hosts, in contrast, are all good cheer and efficiency.)
Twenty bucks buys you a chance to try three pastas, the best of which has been tortelloni swollen with pureed butternut squash. The filling is graciously savory rather than sweet, and beneath the light, hat-shaped pasta is a pool of saffron sauce, bright as an egg yolk and delicate with one of the world's costliest spices. The second-best pasta is probably squid-ink-tinted tagliatelle, more than merely garnished with shrimp and squid.
For your third choice, you might just want another helping of that tortelloni or tagliatelle, because the options go south from there. Risotto is heavy and flat-tasting. Pappardelle appears to have been cooked in a dishwasher; it's wet and soft to the point of collapse. Its dessert-sweet rabbit ragu does nothing to mitigate the problem. A many-layered brick of bland lasagna suggests that even the simpler pastas have problems. Spaghetti and meatballs involves a mountain of noodles and soft, herbed meatballs. It's a decent plate, like something you'd find in a diner.
Ouattara, 45, is an experienced Italian hand, having spent seven years at I Ricchi in Washington before opening up places of his own in Derwood (Biscotti, still going) and Middleburg (Salvia, now dark). It's a mystery, then, for a diner to slice into veal saltimbocca and find so little flavor, despite the presence of provolone, prosciutto and sage on the cut. Fried calamari is a barge of big, blond rings and three dips that speaks more to American excess than Italian simplicity. A fellow diner trawls and trawls for seafood in a bowl of chowder and comes up with more celery and carrot than anything else. Curiously, the dominant flavor in each spoonful is turf: "Bacon bisque," he calls it, and I echo the sentiment after tasting the chowder. Even an arugula salad misses, with dry greens and ice-cold bits of Gorgonzola in a mix that includes walnuts and oranges.
Glimmers of potential emerge. Moist swordfish is amped up with olives, capers and too-big chunks of tomato, but what really holds my interest on the plate is the fluffy basmati rice striped with pesto. About as good, a pleasantly chewy risotto cake draped with artichokes and shrimp would be better with less salt on the seafood.
A meal or two in, I figured Kora is best used as a pizza parlor. But then, on my last visit, I encountered a roasted quail so seductive that there was nothing but a little pile of bones on my plate by the time I was finished. Everything about the main course had something to recommend it, from the centerpiece fat bronzed bird stuffed with a kicky Italian sausage to the colorful accompaniments of crisp grilled polenta and melting red and green peppers. It's a terrific dish that could use better company.
Like the rest of the menu, desserts are mixed. Steer clear of the leathery profiteroles, or Bongo Bongo, but consider indulging in a slice of tiramisu, as light as the dessert gets. The kitchen's fruit crisp (pear last month) falls somewhere in the middle. It's neither bad nor so good that you want to finish it.
The tabs confirm Kora's status as a trattoria. Among other deals, the moderately priced menu offers a three-course "power lunch" for $16 and a fixed-price dinner menu for $30. On Sundays, "supper" can be had for as little as $15 a person.
GrizForm Design did its best to make the cavernous space feel intimate. Pretending to lower the endless ceiling are sheer silver nets; dividing the room into smaller parcels of real estate are arty, see-through partitions supporting colored lights that resemble bubbles. Dark brown and purple walls dressed up with filigree are easy on the eyes. So is the giant, multi-hued, Warhol-like print in the rear that captures the restaurant's namesake and emphasizes a family enterprise. Kora Ouattara is the nearly 4-year-old niece of the chef. She's also the daughter of co-owner Morou Ouattara, 43, the new restaurant's creative director and the talent behind the late Farrah Olivia in Alexandria.
Looking at Kora's signs and Web site, Morou's former regulars could be forgiven for believing he will be making their meals. "Everyone thinks it's going to be me cooking in the kitchen," concedes the younger and better-known chef.
Nice idea, because big brother could use a helping hand.
A Farrah in our Future? Morou Ouattara is looking for a home for Farrah Olivia, his avant-garde restaurant that closed in May. Washington is where he wants to cook next, he says, and fall is when he hopes to do so.