1324 U St. NW (near 13th Street)
Open: for dinner Tuesday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 6 to 9 p.m. Closed Monday. MC, V. Smoking permitted in bar area only Friday and Saturday after 11 p.m. Limited wheelchair access. Metro: U Street. Prices: appetizers $5 to $8, entrees $16 to $22. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $60 per person.
"Are you open?" a woman calls out as she and some companions step inside a new restaurant on U Street NW and adjust their eyes to the small dining room. Shallow candles on the tabletops provide so little illumination, the space is hardly brighter than the winter night.
"Come in! Come in!" booms a voice from a black hole in the rear. The hearty welcome rings familiar to anyone who visited the previous restaurant in this location, the Italian-themed Kuna. With good reason: Opera, its slightly fancier replacement since late November, is guided by the same owner, Mark Giuricich. Whereas he once beckoned his customers to drop by the small bar and sample a taste of whatever wines he had open before they sat down to dinner, at Opera the burly restaurateur now makes a point of telling newcomers about his "alchemy" -- 10 cocktails with seductive names like Silk Stockings and Fontainebleau.
Between Kuna's closing and Opera's debut, Giuricich and his staff changed some other details, too. Chocolate-colored walls have been erased with a coat of moss-green paint, a group table has been placed front and center, and tablecloths now cover formerly bare stretches of wood. Of greater interest to dinner seekers, the menu, which changes from day to day, has broadened its scope. A typical night of choices includes steak tartare, a cheese plate, lamb chops with grilled endive, and stewed veal cheeks. Pasta? I never once saw it.
Despite the theatrical name and the European menu, Opera gives the impression that some buddies are running a restaurant in the comfort of their home. Giuricich likes to wear his shirts untucked, and either he or a sidekick drops off a little something to tide you over while you're examining the list of choices. A tiny skewer of olives and cheese cubes is kind of goofy, though, and the hard biscuit that comes with it could pass for a teething ring. But, hey, the snack is free, the host is pleasant, and there's a bread basket to balance the equation.
A better reintroduction to the place is one of the kitchen's bountiful salads. No ordinary mixes, they might bring together sticky dates, sharp blue cheese, crunchy walnuts and pleasantly bitter lettuces; or bites of fatty bacon, tangy goat cheese and spiky frisee lettuce blended with a warm vinaigrette. Perfect cold-weather companions. Wisps of kale turn up in a restorative potato-and-sausage soup that suggests Portugal's famous caldo verde. And diced raw beef is coaxed into a zesty tartare, amusingly arranged on crisp potato skins: guy food with elan. I'm not sure it's correct to call diced smoked salmon "tartare" -- the word generally implies a raw ingredient -- but the preparation whipped up at Opera is nevertheless appealing. The minced pink fish is contrasted with earthy diced beets and bright orange roe for a luscious light meal, one of several small-but-not-too-small entrees. (Another success story: the assorted cheese plate.)
Yet. The cooking here is alternately plain and refined, subtle and rowdy, as if two different people were in charge -- or the owner couldn't decide quite where he wanted to go with his new concept. A holdover from Kuna, the cheesy risotto cake is both crisp and soft; partnered with mellow pumpkin and wrinkly kale, it adds up to a hearty vegetarian dish. But in another main course, soft rings of squid and bites of red snapper float in a tomato broth of so little flavor that you'd swear it was just hot water. And some of the dishes aren't quite what you think they will be. Sauteed calf's liver, for instance, is served in finger-length strips, as is the grilled flank steak. The latter promises "salsa verde and pommes frites," yet there is no mention that the salsa, typically robust with chilies and cilantro, is creamy here (and too muted) or that the (limp) french fries come drizzled with mayonnaise. Chatty menus can be annoying; menus that leave out significant details are worse.
My single happiest memory of Opera is the night I ordered braised pork butt. The meat was tender and tasted like pork should but often doesn't: rich, haunting, even a little earthy. A bar of crisped polenta and some soft root vegetables made perfect plate mates. I was halfway into the entree, lingering over each bite, when I paused and gazed out the ground-floor window: A gentle snow was falling. The experience reminded me how events, good or bad, can shape a person's attitude about a restaurant. Who you're with, the mood you're in when you walk through the door, the background music -- restaurants are often about more than just what you're eating.
I get a little grouchy reading Opera's wine list. The guest-friendly pricing that encouraged wine consumption at Kuna has been retired. Given the average entree price, $17, it's a pity to see a basic Cotes du Rhone offered for $32 a bottle; indeed, some of the markups here are the sort you see in better hotels. And the short, chunky glasses don't do the wines any favors.
Those cocktails, on the other hand, warrant investigation. On the light end, there's a Nijinski -- Grey Goose vodka swirled with peach schnapps and a hint of bubbly. Slightly sassier is white rum, grenadine and citrus juices, or El Presidente No. 2. Classic cocktails, including the sidecar, also make appearances.
For the last course, Giuricich resurrects some of his sweet successes from Kuna. His dark chocolate torte is as good as I remember it; dense and moist, it practically defies you not to finish it. Panna cotta still trembles seductively amid its garnish of wine-steeped cherries. Figs poached in tea are both sweet and dusky; the fruit is scattered around a velvety scoop of vanilla-rich ice cream that tastes homemade. This Opera has more than enough high notes to compensate for its low ones.
"When will restaurants realize that if style defeats function, customers may not return?" That's a question posed by Anne Monahan of Alexandria, who recently complained in an e-mail to me about the "dark blue menus printed in black ink" at the Stardust Restaurant & Lounge in Alexandria. "In the dim light," she wrote, "the menus were nearly impossible to read. I walked mine over to a dim hanging light at a nearby booth and deciphered it with the help of bifocals and prodigious squinting." Avery Kincaid, a co-owner of the restaurant, told me that, while she hadn't noticed the problem before ("and I'm in my fifties"), she preferred "aggressive" colors like those in her green, blue and purple dining rooms. Still, the restaurateur vowed to change the hue of the menus the next day, saying, "We want to be considerate" of customers. Yellow paper, Kincaid said, has replaced "thoughtless blue."