New Accent on New Hampshire
At Notti Bianche, Italian fare that's simple and sublime
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 28, 2005
For some time now, the little restaurant in the tucked-away George Washington University Inn has played host to some diverting culinary performances.
Remember Zuki Moon? Its Asian-inspired menu, composed by Mary Richter, could always be counted on for light and exciting noodle dishes. Fans sorely missed her personal style of cooking when the restaurant, within strolling distance of the Kennedy Center, closed in 2001.
Then came Nectar, an upscale American collaboration between chef Jamison Blankenship and host Jarad Slipp. Nectar was not every diner's cup of chai ("Too precious," some groused. "We left hungry," others weighed in), yet I appreciated the restaurant's genteel polish and restrained presentations. When the owner of the hotel, George Washington University, and the restaurant's creative forces couldn't agree on how Nectar should move forward, they parted ways and the dining room went dark for several months.
Enter Notti Bianche -- "White Nights" in Italian. The change in accent this spring seemed apt, given that the chef hired to fill its 42 seats hails from Aria Trattoria in the Ronald Reagan Building and previously served as chef de cuisine at Equinox downtown. In just a few months in his new slip of a kitchen, Anthony Chittum, who also oversees the menu at the nearby Dish, is serving some of the most appealing food around, and without resorting to any bells and whistles. A lot of places serve bruschetta. His snack comes with ultrathin ringlets of squid, shaved fennel and capers. His pastas, all of which can be ordered in half-portions, lean toward the sublime. Spaghetti with crushed tomatoes and a leaf of fried basil is the culinary equivalent of a little black dress.
First, a caveat. Notti Bianche inherits some of the problems of its predecessor. Forget about letting down your hair here: The tables, particularly those facing the banquette, are placed so close together, you get to hear exactly what your neighbor got in her divorce settlement. The ceilings are low and industrial-looking, which detracts from the aesthetics. Aside from a little pot of herbs on each table and a few framed art posters, there's not much for the eyes. Indeed, the restaurant looks as if it were decorated not just on a shoestring, but a thread of a shoestring. Do I sound whiny? Well, looks matter when you're dressed for a show and paying $20 for roast chicken.
It's a really good roast chicken, however, juicy as you could hope for and sporting a delightfully crisp skin. The entree is kept company by plate mates of kale, punched up with bits of pancetta, and a Parmesan-enriched puck of risotto. Were this dish a play, it would garner a standing ovation. The same could be said of wild salmon, cooked so that the pink-orange fish fell away from my knife like hot butter, and delicately paved with a shimmering green coat of basil, spinach and Japanese bread crumbs. Elegant on its own, the salmon rested atop a lovely bread salad of diced focaccia, cool cucumbers and summery tomatoes. A splash of vinegar added zing to the assembly. Lamb edged in crushed pine nuts and flanked by a loose bundle of yellow and green beans moistened with yogurt sauce is a clean and quiet pleasure.
Too many young male chefs have a tendency to show off in their presentations, but the 28-year-old Chittum generally refrains from overloading his plates with extraneous sauces and garnishes. Like a true Italian, he makes a caprese salad with not much more than cheese, tomatoes and basil, and those building blocks are all prime: pillowy mozzarella, several shades of tomatoes that remind you it's deep summer, and fresh basil. Thin strips of zucchini, string beans and broccoli rabe go into a fritto misto of uncommon lightness; the batter clinging to the fried vegetables is just a suggestion, and the appetizer is better for the accompanying dip, bold with anchovies and garlic. Succulent slices of hanger steak are simply accessorized with roasted fingerling potatoes, some chicory and a light wash of sauce hinting of madeira.
In one of the few exceptions to the chef's less-is-more approach, a heap of tagliatelle tinted black with squid ink is built up with sweet crab, julienned vegetables and rock shrimp, then drizzled with red pepper cream. The dish calls out for an editor to suggest cuts. (I'd start with the crab, whose delicacy is lost in this little blizzard of ingredients.)
Like the menu, the concise wine list concentrates on things Italian. It also shows thought. The selection of 20 or so whites and reds embraces some unusual grape varieties (cortese, fiano di avellino) and a surprise or two. Never tried a Greek rose? Here's your chance.
Notti Bianche is one of the few Washington restaurants where sweets are accorded the same respect as savories. Chittum has his pastry chef -- who happens to be his wife, Heather -- to thank for that. She slips whatever fruit looks good into luscious, opened-faced croustades, and shapes risotto into fritters, dusting the bite-size balls with powdered sugar and garnishing them with sliced dark cherries. If you like chocolate, head for her torta, a shallow cake made with (surprise!) Nutella and partnered with velvety hazelnut ice cream. And if you like it light, ask for the biscuitlike almond cake, crowned with a dollop of mascarpone cream. The lone disappointment surfaced when I ordered panna cotta. The vanilla-bean-flecked custard was fine, but its unripe strawberries sprinkled with a flat balsamic vinegar proved a distraction.
The Chittums' food isn't done justice by the modest setting, and service might be good or routine depending on your waiter. There can be long waits for food, too -- not what you want when you've got less than an hour for lunch or an 8 p.m. curtain to make. Yet the more I ate at Notti Bianche, the more I couldn't wait to return. The "Tony & Heather Show" deserves a long run.