Discerning history buffs know that when they crack open the latest from David McCullough, they’re in for transporting time travel. Film fans figure that if Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis is part of a picture, they’re likely to savor the flick.
Here in Washington, at least among devoted food followers, the name Ashok Bajaj has long held the promise of a reliable, sometimes even transcendent, dining experience. His portfolio of restaurants includes some of the top food destinations in the city, among them Rasika in Penn Quarter and the Oval Room downtown. Is there anything Bajaj can serve us that we won’t lap up?
As a matter of fact, there is, and it’s called Nopa Kitchen + Bar, the name a nod to the newcomer’s location north of Pennsylvania Avenue. Housed in what used to be Zola, the American brasserie opened to respectable applause in May, thanks to a handful of crowd-pleasers on the menu and attractive packaging. But then, instead of picking up steam, the restaurant just simmered on the burner.
You should know going into Nopa that the miniature fried fruit pies are blue-ribbon worthy. (Go easy, then, on the decadent buttery herbed rolls that open a meal.) The season dictates what you’ll find inside the nubby hot pastries — strawberries in spring became peaches in summer — and there’s a scoop of something cool and creamy — fromage blanc ice cream or peach melba frozen yogurt, respectively — to flatter the core.
A diner should also note that chicken, typically an undaring menu choice, makes an impressive start and segue here. Fried chicken might not be an obvious way to begin a meal, but the “snack” presented at Nopa brings a thigh and a leg that have been marinated with cayenne and egg yolk, then rolled in sweet rice flour and twice-fried to a fine crackle. And one of Nopa’s more memorable main courses is juicy roast chicken splayed on a pool of Fresno chili vinaigrette and dressed with a garland of sauteed sugar snap peas, corn and other bright vegetables.
As at all of Bajaj’s establishments, the service is genial and accommodating. When the bartender didn’t have the creme de violette necessary to make an Aviation, he called over to sister restaurant 701 nearby for the missing part. (Yes, the staff recognized this fan of the classic cocktail, but I want to believe that the crew would make the extra effort for guests they didn’t know.) Nopa’s engaging dining room staff also distracts customers from the reality that much of the food hovers in the merely pleasant range.
Deja vu envelops me as I sample the foie gras terrine presented with a bright orange puree of carrot and ginger, with fat slices of toasted bread for spreading. Ditto a pink cake of hamachi tartare perched on a dark ginger sauce with an island of sweet pea puree nearby. (The best parts of the latter appetizer: slivered red grapes and jalapeño doing a sweet-hot dance atop the raw minced fish.) Both are versions of dishes I’ve seen a hundred times in a hundred restaurants in the past — and have enjoyed more elsewhere. Given the résumé of Nopa chef Greg McCarty, who comes from Manhattan trendsetters Jean-Georges and Nobu 57, early expectations were lofty and have largely gone unmet.