Panache: Risotto at a Nice Price
Friday, January 19, 2007
It's not a term generally applied to restaurants -- and perhaps not immediately understood as a compliment -- but Ashburn's Cafe Panache is a thrifty little establishment. And in a time when so-called small plates often carry a big ticket, a good mid-priced menu is a fair definition of smarts. Entree salads top out in the low teens, and even a Saturday night special rarely rises far above the $20 mark.
But it's not simply the moderate entree range that suggests thriftiness as a kitchen virtue, it's the menu itself. Various ingredients -- broccoli rabe, spinach, asparagus, haricots verts, wild mushrooms, peanut sauce and the usual suspects such as roasted red peppers -- are used repeatedly, but in intelligent ways and thoughtful combinations. Eggplant becomes caponata and ratatouille; Asian noodles go hot with pork tenderloin and cold with sesame shrimp; spinach is wilted, turned with potatoes in croquettes, used as salad greens, etc.; and haricots verts are hot, cold and tempura-battered.
This is culinary trickle-down economics: A less extravagant pantry order, and less time and attention devoted to making every dish unique merely to impress, saves waste and money all around. It also means the chef can better concentrate his efforts, and in a young, popular and occasionally short-staffed cafe like this, fashionable frivolity is an unnecessary expense.
This mature outlook is at least in part the result of years of experience. Partners Patrick McCluskey, the general manager, and executive chef Jeff Galkin have known each other for more than a decade, having worked together at Reston's Market Street Bar & Grill before Galkin moved on to Yannick Cam's then-West End restaurant Provence and a Bordeaux apprenticeship with Cam as well. (One has to say, although clarity of flavor is a lesson Galkin may have learned from the peripatetic Cam, economy of ingredient is probably not.)
A good head for the business side is only half the equation. Although several dishes are extremely good (the risotto with arugula pesto, white truffle oil and grilled portobellos is already on the best bites of 2007 list, and that just-crunchy spinach and potato croquette stole the show from the slightly pallid lamb loin), there are others that need fine-tuning.
The richly colored sea scallops over potatoes rosti is a welcome change from the often overly delicate, almost reverential coddling of that meaty and versatile mollusk. The house-made Italian sausage, fennel-spiked and grilled, is first-rate. Served with polenta and broccoli rabe as an appetizer, it's nearly a light meal. One night's special of braised veal cheeks was an unapologetically unadorned indulgence: four cheeks, rather than the usual two or three, carefully trimmed to a moderately gelatinous texture and with more physical integrity than some over-tenderized versions. (Not to mention the homey mashed potatoes, so smooth they must have been passed through a sieve.) Another night the special was breast of duck, a prettily displayed portion over equally satin sweet-potato puree.
Roast chicken breast has a good, crisp skin and moist meat, and the mix of rooty-sweet sides -- butternut-squash puree, caramelized onions, roasted beets -- and sage-steeped juices give it a hearty setting that (again) is often denied that easily toughened meat. The "petite" Caesar salad isn't any too small -- perhaps it refers to the romaine hearts having been chopped for convenience -- but the dressing is authentically pungent. Pan-roasted swordfish is dressed with an onion-red pepper jam and tucked in with lemony couscous that neatly erases any remaining oiliness.
Less successful is the grilled soy-glazed pork tenderloin and sesame-coated noodles, one of the more commonplace recipes. The pork was well done to the point of dryness, and the glaze overwhelmed the delicate meat; the noodles were so heavily coated with sauce that it cloyed almost immediately. The creamed soup of sweet corn and leeks hasn't quite found its balance yet. The broth is surprisingly thin, given the name, and somehow unassured, with whole kernels simply lying about along with one whole shrimp and one shrimp ravioli, both unfortunately rubbery.
The seared rare tuna is served better by its setting as an appetizer (caponata and a pesto swizzle) than as a Nicoise-style entree salad. When tomatoes are so orange and pulpy, grape or cocktail tomatoes would be a far better choice; even oven-dried would suit a revisionist display. However, the traditional interplay of tuna and hard-cooked egg with anchovies and Dijon mustard is so distinctive that a "Nicoise" recipe without either is hard to like. (The tuna was roughly and unevenly sliced, which didn't help much.)
And the grilled beef tenderloin salad is conceptually flawed: The tenderloin, a cut that is easily bruised and toughens if too done, is not grilled and sliced but cut into strips, an exposed style that all but guarantees overcooking. Worse, it's liberally seasoned with what is undoubtedly good salt, but in a dish already heavy with Kalamata olives and blue cheese, it's ruinous.
Still, all this is fairly small potatoes for a kitchen in its third month, and Cafe Panache does have, as the name promises, a swell sense of style. The room, which cleverly avoids what might have been a shoe-boxy regularity, is handsome but discreet, decorated in coffee and toffee colors and a few food-centric prints. The service is extremely cheery and ingratiating; baskets of the very good bread (honorably attributed by the waitress to Uptown Bakers) are replaced two or even three times without demur.
Overall, the concept is sound, and the execution entirely promising. No one's going home hungry, just happy -- and that's what turns customers into regulars. That, and a signature dish as good as the risotto.
Cafe Panache 43135 Broadlands Center Plaza, Ashburn Phone:703-723-1424 Hours: Open Tuesday-Saturday 11-2 and 5-10; Sundays 10:30-2:30 and 5-9. Prices: Appetizers $5-$9; entrees $16-$22. Wheelchair access: Good