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From Dive Bar to Wine Bar

Tallula, in the former Whitey's, serves up risotto fritters and 70 wines by the glass

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page W23

** Tallula
2761 Washington Blvd. (near Pershing Drive), Arlington.
703-778-5051
www.tallularestaurant.com
Open: for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m.; for brunch Friday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations accepted only for parties of seven or more. Smoking in rear bar area only. Metro: Clarendon. Parking lot. Prices: dinner appetizers $6 to $15, entrees $15 to $26; brunch entrees $6 to $15. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $60 per person.

A memorable wine experience includes not just fermented grape juice but also what you pour the liquid into, and Tallula, a new lounge and restaurant in Arlington, thinks outside the box, by using tumblers. Forget the squat jelly jars you've seen in spaghetti joints; picture instead delicate crystal orbs with lips so fine they are barely there, and deep bowls that show the wine to best advantage.

_____Tom Sietsema_____
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That lovely detail is one among many in a thoughtful wine program that could teach a few lessons to plenty of high-end restaurants in Washington. Instead of playing it safe with obvious labels, Tallula's roster delves into the lesser-known treasures offered by small producers in Australia, Oregon and New Zealand. Here's your chance to explore, say, a sparking red wine -- Fox Creek "Vixen" cabernet shiraz brut -- for a mere $29 per bottle. Or try a much dearer Amarone, at $10.50 for about a half-glass. The markups on the choices by the glass are no steal, but you can get 70 different wines in servings of 7 ounces or a little more than 3 ounces. If you time your visit right (that is, if you show up before the masses descend on the place at night), you also get the attention of staff members with an intimate know-ledge of what they're serving. Having a retail shop, Planet Wine, on site sure helps.

All this is no happy accident: The four creators of Tallula have plenty of experience behind them, as they also claim Evening Star and Vermilion in Alexandria, and Clarendon Grill and Clarendon Ballroom in Arlington. They seem to have skimmed the best qualities of those properties for Tallula, which is surprisingly smooth around the edges for a new restaurant.

To make everyone feel at home, for instance, Tallula -- in the space that used to house the venerable Whitey's -- has two lounges. The one up front doesn't allow smoking and is furnished with couches separated by sheer curtains, for semi-private sipping and nibbling. The smaller, darker bar in back has a decadent streak, with smoking permitted ("Ah, secondhand smoke!" I heard one patron say as he walked into the slightly foggy venue) and low-slung chairs that encourage horizontal sipping. If it's Friday or Saturday night, you are apt to become well-acquainted with these spaces, which are where you're likely to wait, and wait, for one of the 26 tables in Tallula's small dining room. But it, too, has its charms, including a small fountain and counter seating that looks into the kitchen.

As do so many modern American menus, this one starts with a selection of hors d'oeuvres. "Amuse Yourself," it demands, above a list of a dozen two-bite snacks. It's easy to be entertained by a plump oyster served in a shot glass with clear but delicious tomato water and fresh horseradish, or by "steak and cheese," translated here as a dollop of brassy beef tartare alongside a crisp of baked Parmesan.

The rest of the hors d'oeuvre lineup is pretty scrumptious, too. Shredded duck, tingling with chilies and accented with threads of fresh basil, is nestled in a sheer, taco-like wonton shell. Fabulous. And the crisp risotto fritter with a dab of truffle-scented cream is like an amuse-bouche you might find at Equinox in downtown Washington, which is where chef Nathan Anda cooked under Todd Gray for a little more than a year. Silken slices of cured salmon curl up on crisp potato skins with coriander-tinged creme fraiche. And would Tallula be an up-to-the-moment restaurant if it didn't serve mini-burgers? It would not, so it does (though the joke, repeated too often around Washington, is getting kind of thin right now). One of the few initial disappointments is a corn beignet with a runny center of not much flavor. But the prices may help you overlook such slips; the surprisingly generous hors d'oeuvres are no more than three bucks each.

Full-fledged appetizers, if not quite as much fun, are still mostly delicious. They include divine crab cakes -- lightly crisp outside, creamy within, and brightened by cumin and mango -- and blueberry-filled crepes served with a thin slice of foie gras. In the wrong hands, those crepes could be a disaster, but the sweet of the fruit and the richness of the liver play well together on the tongue. Steamed mussels pack a fine punch, thanks to a zesty carrot broth.

Vegetarians, take note. One of the best entrees, gnocchi with mushrooms, contains no meat. Fashioned mostly from house-made ricotta cheese, the dumplings are extraordinarily soft and light, just slightly seared, and they're made more glorious by a scattering of corn. It could well be the finest pasta playing in Arlington. Squash-filled ravioli doesn't begin to compare -- the pasta is salty -- but is pleasant enough.

A few main courses are better on paper than on the plate. Roasted duck breast with "riesling braised cabbage" and "cranberry duck glace" comes with a stingy pinch of cabbage and dry duck confit, while the grilled rib-eye is best ordered for its garlicky creamed spinach; the beef itself is thin and bland. The protein that calls to me most here at this season: braised short ribs, scattered with green tomato salsa and poised on a lake of cheesy grits. It's one of those rib-stickers you look forward to on a frigid day, along with a syrah (sometimes known as shiraz). And take your pick: There are nearly 20 to mull over.

Those who are partial to savory over sweet will enjoy Tallula's weekend brunch. Nubby fried green tomatoes alternate with cool frisee in a stacked salad with bacon vinaigrette, while old-fashioned biscuits and gravy are rethought with tiny quail eggs on top of the craggy biscuits and pancetta in the sauce. I like everything about the "deconstructed" chicken salad sandwich except the "deconstructed" part. Toasted bread, mayonnaise, coarse mustard, shredded lettuce and chicken -- blended with raisins, celery and cherries -- are all presented separately.

Ordering this dish is like buying a much-desired toy and getting home to discover that assembly is required.

The kitchen loses steam come dessert. Lemon-blueberry tart is not much of either fruit buried under a cloud of soft meringue, and "spicy mango cake," seductive as it sounds, resembles coffee cake left out on the counter overnight. The temptation, of course, is to end as I've begun. Could I see the wine list again?

ASK TOM

After a reader complained in this space about menus that were hard to read, I heard from Bill Rolle, the executive director of the Low Vision Center (301-951-4444) in Bethesda. The nonprofit organization helps visually impaired people maximize their remaining sight, via free consultations, a quarterly newsletter and a Web site, lowvisioninfo.org. Rolle also offers free "audits" of assisted living facilities, fitness centers and restaurants to help improve their "vision friendliness," he wrote in an e-mail. "We're not out to harm any business," he added, but rather to "improve business by appealing to an audience that is frequently overlooked."


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