By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, April 3, 2005
I've never been to his new restaurant without overhearing chef Jacques Imperato tell his story, and even though I've visited four times, the fall-and-rise saga is one worth repeating.
Early on Thanksgiving morning 2003, fire swept through the popular Mediterranee in Arlington, destroying much of what the chef had created since 1996, including a cellar stocked with $25,000 worth of wine. Though he hoped to rebuild on the same site, disagreements with the landlord prompted Imperato to look elsewhere. When he finally found the right space -- more than a year later -- it was in Great Falls. To his delight, he says, many of the people who had worked with him before followed him there, just as many of his regular customers from Arlington again sought out his restaurant.
By now, the chef has probably shared his tale -- with familiar faces in the dining room, with complete strangers at the small bar -- as often as he's made creme brulee. In fact, he seems to spend as much time chatting up patrons as he does making their lunch, brunch or dinner.
The small dining room is instantly likable. Orange-and-burgundy covers on the tables and flickering candles lend an easy warmth, and the background music plays at a level that doesn't hinder conversation (though the Gipsy Kings are a throwback to a decade ago). A sign on the kitchen door -- "Beware of Attack Chef" -- suggests Imperato has a sense of humor, and the staff, which includes his teenage son and daughter, tends to roll out the welcome mat. "Have you been before?" a waitress might ask, referring to the original Mediterranee and scanning your face for signs of recognition. A basket of warm bread quickly materializes, followed by whatever wine you may have requested.
The sustenance comes in handy as diners look over the menu, with choices that sound tempting and a list of specials almost as long as the standing bill of fare. The food is mostly French -- escargots, bouillabaisse, cassoulet -- though that definition is frequently stretched to include a Middle Eastern accent here or an Asian note there. Thus, in one salad, goat cheese is sandwiched between sheets of crisp phyllo, and an entree of roast duck comes sprinkled with tiny black Sichuan peppercorns.
I sometimes wonder if nostalgia and goodwill cloud the reality of a meal here, however. "Dinner was great!" a man gushed one night when he saw the chef. "Welcome back!" His high praise made me wonder exactly what the stranger had eaten and whether I had simply ordered the wrong thing that particular evening. My first course -- bland snails scattered over a portobello mushroom trapped in a greasy cover of pastry -- would not be my idea of a memorable performance, nor would that roast duck, sliced over a wet nest of cabbage and wan despite its peppercorns.
I might have felt differently had I started with soup. There are generally a couple of bowls from which to choose, and they invariably make a fine first impression. One day brings a soothing asparagus puree glistening with herbed oil, another a seafood bisque that comes with tender shrimp and a packet of salmon-stuffed pastry in the center. Both are delicious and served piping hot. Shredded fish is featured in a third satisfying choice, though its little rafts of toasted bread are so hard they should come with a warning from a dentist.
As you trawl the menu, you'd be smart to avoid seafood for a main course. A little more attention from the kitchen would have rescued the rockfish that sat on the fire a moment too long, but that wouldn't have helped the dry, thick chickpea crepe it rested on. A special of halibut was overcooked, too, then further tormented by a tomato-lemon topping that was so astringent that all I could taste was citrus.
With the exception of some wimpy lamb chops, meat offers a tastier possibility. Pork is tender and thick, moistened by a sauce of mustard and dill and prettily outfitted with glistening green beans and a triangular pastry filled with salsify, a slightly bitter-tasting root vegetable. And beef ignited by black peppercorn sauce is something a steak eater could sink his or her teeth into with pleasure. Imperato is fond of filling out his plates, which means you might encounter, along with your entree, a potato croquette and an eggplant-stuffed tomato half. The potato seems to be more crumbs than anything else, but the tomato is a nice addition.
My meals at Mediterranee have reminded me of an off-and-on relationship: Just when I think about giving up on the place, it swoops in with a dish that rekindles my interest. The deal-maker might be a slab of duck pate, arranged with olives, pickles and more, or a salad of beef tongue, warm, tender and drizzled with a tangy sauce for contrast. Hanger steak with a wash of red wine sauce -- enough meat to feed two carnivores -- makes me glad to be here, too. Mediterranee is also mindful of the budget, offering a three-course menu for $15.95 at lunch and $20.95 at dinner (from 5:30 to 6:15 p.m. and after 9 p.m.).
Creme brulee is not worth any extra time at the sports club. The custard has the texture of scrambled eggs, contains barely a hint of its promised licorice and is hidden beneath a pane of caramelized sugar that is thick when it ought to be sheer. Chocolate mousse is all fluff and very little flavor, and it's paired with meringue cookies that could double as packing material.
Splurge instead on bananas doused in rum and (ooh la la!) flamed at the table, or crepes served with a little drift of chestnut cream and raspberry sauce. Either dessert positions Mediterranee as a nice addition to the neighborhood -- and either one helps you forgive the disappointments that may lead up to them.