2013 Fall Dining Guide
By Tom Sietsema
October 10, 2013
The name says it all: Roberto Donna cooks dinner for a mere four diners at a kitchen counter at this restaurant-within-a-restaurant inside Al Dente. The performance starts with a saucer-size pizza presented in a tiny white box, whose quail egg- and truffle-topped contents summon Italy's Piedmont over Papa John's. The kicks continue with a cloche filled with smoke that clears to reveal a beautiful lamb tongue salad; an egg shell whose hollow brims with creamy scrambled eggs flavored with porcini mushrooms; and a Parmesan-dusted raviolo containing a liquid center of olive oil.
Plan to linger several hours; it takes time to serve and savor 20 courses of food that revive the Italian chef's glory days at the late, four-star Laboratorio del Galileo downtown but also reflect modern culinary techniques. Also, come with an open mind and a good appetite. There are likely to be cockscombs and Rocky Mountain oysters sprinkled throughout the night, and five lovely desserts before the check.
No matter how sated I am, however, I can never say "no, grazie" to caramel panna cotta or a tier of hot sugared doughnuts dipped in glossy chocolate.
Ringside seats rekindle a chef’s deft touches
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
The Italian restaurant that opened as La Forchetta and morphed into Al Dente celebrated its first anniversary April 2. But a more impressive milestone was Feb. 20, when executive chef Roberto Donna introduced Roberto’s 4. It’s a four-seat counter with a view into Al Dente’s kitchen that serves an $85 tasting menu, and it resurrects the enormous talent of the Washington chef who took home the James Beard award for best Mid-Atlantic chef in 1996: Roberto Donna.
Al Dente is a respectable, mid-priced source of pasta and pesce. Roberto’s 4 is a chance for Donna to revive the glory days of Galileo and its restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Laboratorio del Galileo -- or, as the chef says, “to cook what I want to cook.” Elements from both of his former establishments surface in his new domain, although the many little dishes at Roberto’s 4 have been informed by modernist cooking philosophy.
Dinner commences with a wink and a laugh. A tiny pizza box holds a small round of baked dough topped with a quail egg and shaved black truffles. The playful pie is followed by a slim wooden fork supporting a fold of winy prosciutto and a bite of fried bread, then by a
morsel that tastes like a fried olive and comes with a small black squeeze tube. “Am I supposed to brush my teeth?” a companion asks. No, he’s told, the tube contains mortadella “mayonnaise” (mousse) for piping on the olive. A single whole shrimp in crackling batter comes to the counter on a wire stand that positions the shellfish as an edible acrobat. We’re instructed to dip the shrimp in a sunny squiggle of saffron sauce and eat it head and all. Crunch. The snack goes down like a seafood potato chip.
The whimsical touches bring to mind the artistry of French chef Michel Richard and Spanish maestro Jose Andres. Say that aloud at Roberto’s 4, with Donna just feet away, and the compliment is greeted with an outsize frown from the animated chef. (I think the sulk is play-acting.)
Veal sweetbreads taste of Marsala and come with a twist: fleshy cockscomb. More, please.
Scrambled eggs, creamy with burrata and offered in halved shells, lead to several pastas. At this point, it comes as no jolt that the house-made spaghetti decorated with sea urchin arrives cupped in the spiky shell of the sea creature itself.
Donna’s bite-size plin, brushed with butter and sage, are a luscious flashback to his earlier career and the ravioli of his native Piedmont. His herbed risotto recalls delicious meals past, too, although surely this is the first time he has staged the grains in what looks like a can of tuna.
Not every dish sings. The lush bar of salmon revealed beneath a glass cloche hazy with smoke will be all too familiar to food fashionistas. And the homier roast pork cries out for salt. But a diner really has to hunt for reasons not to see stars.
The cheese course is a sliver of dried focaccia teetering over a nugget of Gorgonzola and a wrinkled roasted yellow tomato. Dessert is four divine acts long; it embraces the best panna cotta I have ever eaten and bombolini and warm chocolate presented in tiered votive glasses. Honestly, the display is more fetching than the flavor, but frankly, I’m more than sated at this point.
Donna doesn’t want to grow the size of his audience or the frequency with which he offers his 20-course, 135-minute-long feast. One 7 p.m. seating for four, Tuesday through Thursday, is enough when it’s just him doing the show, he says.
The tab doesn’t include wine, tax or tip and can escalate to double the set price when you factor in those extras. That’s a lot of money for a stool at a counter on the side of a bustling trattoria. But Roberto’s 4 left at least one patron with more goose bumps than a whole season of eating elsewhere in town.