Eating Good in the Neighborhood

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By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, May 28, 2006

**1/2 Ardeo
3311 Connecticut Ave. NW (at Macomb Street)
202-244-6750
http://www.ardeorestaurant.com/

Open: dinner Sunday 5 to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Smoking at the bar. Metro: Cleveland Park. $5 valet parking. Prices: appetizers $7 to $12, entrees $14 to $24. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $60 to $80 per person.

A guy can find love, housing, new clothes, used cars and Nationals tickets on craigslist.com. If he's lucky, he can even find a pastry chef on the mega-popular community Web site. That's where Christopher Bradley, the new executive chef at Ardeo in Cleveland Park, found Ms. Right, otherwise known as Susan Kolman. In a city where dessert is often treated as an afterthought, she is doing her part to change that perception. A case in point is her streusel-topped rhubarb tart, served with a scoop of ice cream that mingles green tea with fresh ginger. Enriched with saffron-infused cream, the tart is intriguing and delicious.

Haven't dropped by in a while? Ardeo -- a middle child in a family of six Washington restaurants owned by the prolific Ashok Bajaj -- is not the same place it was even a year ago. Ardeo is now smarter, thanks to fresh art on the walls. The rooftop has been opened to those who like to take advantage of good weather (and who don't mind the graffiti on nearby facades), and while you can still find a hamburger on the menu, more of the dishes tend to make fashion statements. Order seviche, and it might come with cucumber-flavored shaved ice. Request the mahi-mahi, and it shows up with vanilla- and almond-scented "foam." That's what the moneyed, well-traveled neighbors expect. And Ardeo is the kind of pit stop where Jim Lehrer, Alan Greenspan and the U.S. attorney general count as regulars.

They still like a good deal, though, and so do we little people. So valet parking is $5, and a four-course, Thursday-only tasting menu will set you back $52, wine pairings included. When I invited a couple to join me for dinner recently, our server quickly remembered them. "We were here earlier this week," whispered one of my companions.

Bradley, a North Carolina native, helped open Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill two years ago. His résumé includes stints at some impressive restaurants -- such as Cafe Boulud and Aureole, both in New York -- where it appears he picked up useful skills as a maker of hot appetizers (Boulud) and as a saute and grill cook (Aureole). Bradley doesn't hesitate to thank his former boss at Cafe Boulud, Andrew Carmellini, who drilled into his young charge the importance of high-quality ingredients, simply cooked and never overdressed.

That describes a lot of the food that Bradley, who came aboard in January, is serving at his new roost. Sweet crab rides atop zesty tomato ice in a cone-shaped glass for a simple and refreshing starter that is as much a treat for the eyes as for the tongue. Simpler still are the salads, one of which mixes thinly shaved fennel, greens and crumbled Parmesan -- everything tied together with a sparkling lemon vinaigrette; another combines arugula with raw and roasted beets and a little cake of goat cheese rolled in crushed pistachios. The routine is also raised to an "Aha!" in Bradley's soup of the day. Pureed cauliflower with a hint of fresh-tasting curry is set off with a dollop of yogurt in its center. The three notes -- mild vegetable, dusky spice, tart dairy -- make a lovely concert.

In the kitchen, knowing when to quit is a good thing. The chef's restraint means a diner can really taste the roast chicken, moistened with a winy stock flavored with lemon thyme. The entree is made special with a creamy base of farro risotto for the poultry; the light-brown wheat grain is mixed with garlicky chard and would make a nice dish on its own. A special of lamb loin, cooked to a rosy shade, comes with crisp asparagus and woodsy morel mushrooms. Each bite says spring. Pan-roasted trout is a success story built around a fine piece of fish whose accents of bitter greens, smoky bacon and julienned green apple -- a cool garnish kicked up a notch with horseradish and sea salt -- all lend something delicious. More exotic: grill-striped mahi-mahi made memorable with a mint- and apricot-flecked couscous, a light-as-air salad of pea shoots, and a frothy cloud of foam whipped up from toasted almonds, vanilla bean and a bit of butter.

The wine list makes a good companion to the cooking, and the selections tap into a number of lesser-known regions, including South Africa. If the wines by the glass are priced a tad high, they also celebrate diversity. The chardonnay hails not from California, but from Chile; the easy sippers run to a tempranillo from Argentina, a pinot blanc from Oregon and a riesling from Upstate New York.

There are moments, fortunately few, when Ardeo's dishes resemble those of a lot of other restaurants: just okay. Such as the time I order a hamburger and get french fries that taste as if they came straight off a Sysco food truck. Or when I order a riff on bouillabaisse that comes with big chunks of boring halibut and a vague, chickpea-thickened broth. An asparagus risotto does justice to neither vegetable nor starch (it's stodgy), and an otherwise pleasing entree of pan-roasted duck is marred by slices of fowl that are as thick as a paperback novel. For that entree, a bed of glistening Asian noodles, cooked in green tea, supports what appears to be an entire duck.

Long and narrow, the dining room poses a design challenge. My favorite destination is the cheerful front bar, backed in yellow and fronted with red stools. From certain tables -- say, the midsection facing a flight of stairs and blue walls -- the restaurant takes on a jaunty nautical air. The good thing is, the restaurant is casual enough to wear jeans to and dressy enough to don a jacket for. No matter what you're in, you'll fit in and feel welcome.

"Dessert?" your server will ask. Just nod (and vow to take the stairs instead of the elevator the next day). In addition to the rhubarb selection, there's a very good chocolate bombe that tastes like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup by way of a finishing school, and also an elegant espresso semifreddo garnished with mocha praline, chocolate biscotti and lashings of caramel sauce. I like the premise of the banana tart, but the dessert would be better served warm and with only a suggestion of pineapple salad -- minus the shredded jicama -- rather than with the fruit bowl I got. And I look forward to a return appearance by Kolman's lemon-poppy seed pound cake, which she served over the winter months with brandy snap cigars filled with fresh citrus curd. Ardeo is Latin for passion, which I taste, more than ever, from this reinvigorated kitchen.

To chat with Tom Sietsema online, click on Live Online at www.washingtonpost.com, Wednesdays at 11 a.m.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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