A Feast for Eyes or Appetite
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Oct. 29, 2006
If you're a chef riding the modern American bandwagon these days, you're offering pork belly on your menu. Chances are also good that at least one of your plates will partner something from the water with something from the land. So here I am at Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar , beginning the evening with an appetizer of tender, fat-veined pork belly in a close-knit circle of seared scallops (and sliced, upended leeks). It all adds up to surf and turf of distinction.
In fact, there's a lot to like on the evolving menu at this intimate, California-coined restaurant, where 37-year-old Barry Koslow recently took over the range. Mendocino is his first solo act. (Drew Trautmann remains the executive chef but is also busy with Sonoma, Mendocino's younger sibling on Capitol Hill; so Koslow is free to write the menu). A 2000 graduate of L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Koslow has worked for a number of prominent chefs around the city, including the big kahuna at Michel Richard Citronelle. His last gig was at Circle Bistro, where he was No. 2, the sous-chef, under Brendan Cox.
Evidence of his pedigree appears in a number of Koslow's dishes. As with pork belly, tuna carpaccio is commonplace. But Koslow sets his version apart with tiny folds of very good, deep-red fish scattered with marbles of cantaloupe and watermelon, plus a hit of cilantro and a fruity splash of yuzu vinaigrette. The combination is a little sweet and a little meaty, entirely elegant and satisfying. In another happy encounter, crisp romaine is passed over the grill, singeing but not charring the edges, and arranged with hard-cooked eggs, crunchy pine nuts and a potent lemon dressing. The one-two punch of soft smoke and bright citrus in each bite of salad engages the senses in a way that few Caesars do. Koslow makes his own rabbit pâté, which he serves as a big, pistachio-veined triangle striped with a biting violet mustard sauce. Smoky toast points, a pinch of salad and pickled mushrooms broaden the presentation, and the pleasure. Koslow serves up more smoke in a salad of smoked cod, though in this case, the flavor is so intense that it throws everything off balance.
The chef makes hearty look elegant. Autumn is heralded in a ruddy venison chop set atop seared slices of sweet Asian pear and tender baby carrots, the meat enhanced with a juniper-spiked sauce. Lamb chops with a drift of sweet potato puree and wrinkled fingers of eggplant are nearly the equal of the aforementioned entrees; chewy edamame (soybeans) keep the entree from more applause. And a vegetarian dish of gnocchi, green beans and tomatoes is fine during the first bite, tiresome by the third. The assembly looks like the kitchen's attempt to use up leftovers.
Three businessmen at a nearby table are complaining. "Can't we get some bread?" one asks a server. A legacy of the Atkins diet craze, warm olives stand in for starch here. That may change, though, as Koslow and his boss tinker with the menu, maybe adding several tasting menus in addition to a la carte choices.
At age nine, Mendocino is no spring chicken, yet it manages to appear youthful. The narrow, low-ceilinged interior opens with a clubby bar and continues with two small dining rooms. Stone, wood and moss-colored banquettes foster a natural look, and whimsy peeks through with a bit of blue sky painted on the wall of the hideaway known as the "alcove." Though tables are close together, there's less of a sense of packing-'em-in, thanks to a few big mirrors, tilted to exaggerate the space and give even people facing a wall the chance to view the room.
Desserts are simple. I like the apple charlotte best. A crisp, sticky-caramel exterior gives way to a center of diced apples, all nicely set off with a scoop of honey ice cream that melts into a lovely sort of creme anglaise as you eat. A diner can also end (or begin) a meal with a selection of cheese and wine; Mendocino prides itself on both. The most indulgent combination might be something blue with something red -- say, a glass of the 2004 Turley "Old Vine" zinfandel, which costs $16 and delivers a rich taste of California with every sip.