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Aioli Meditalian Gourmet in Dupont Circle

A standout red lentil salad includes bell peppers and fresh herbs.
A standout red lentil salad includes bell peppers and fresh herbs. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
Wednesday, November 7, 2007

This small Mediterranean deli and cafe may be brand-new, but its food is already remarkable. In the P Street space formerly held by the Fractured Prune doughnut chain, chef Andrew LaPorta, 33, is turning out beautifully seasoned dishes, packed with flavor, from an open kitchen outfitted with a wood-burning oven and pasta and panini stations.

Owner Ghaleb Ghaleb, who also owns Top Chef Cafe in McLean, was wise to put the Aioli kitchen in the hands of LaPorta, former executive sous-chef at Palena and 1789.

For proof, take a bite of LaPorta's plump, hand-rolled short rib ravioli ($11.95 for six ounces), with a rich stuffing of long-cooked beef, cremini mushrooms and a touch of mascarpone cheese, topped with a bright, spicy tomato sauce. Boy, is it addictively good. The same is true of the perfectly baked wild Scottish salmon ($19.99 per pound), finished with a creamy yogurt and mint sauce. Both dishes were weekly specials recently, but the chef plans to offer them on a regular basis.

LaPorta has a particular facility with the tomato. His signature dish is versatile honey-roasted plum tomatoes ($7.99 per pound), which can bring concentrated tomato flavor to pastas or salads. He tucks them into his sweet, Turkish-style lahm b'ajeen wrap ($6.95), filled with ground beef, lamb and caramelized onions. Fresh chopped tomatoes play a major role in the panzanella ($7.99 per pound), a bread salad loaded with basil, parsley, a hint of mint and a distinctive red wine vinegar tang.

Order one of the fine Napolitano panini ($7.25), with tender young arugula, fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced tomato and lively basil pesto pressed in the center of a superior ciabatta roll. Or try another filled with a juicy grilled portobello mushroom, baby field greens and creamy, mild goat cheese ($7.49).

Don't overlook the side dishes. Grilled eggplant ($7.99 per pound) is chewy -- in a good way -- and loaded with sliced garlic. The best, though, is the red lentil salad ($6.99 per pound), which brings together firm legumes with a fine dice of red and green bell pepper, parsley and cilantro.

There is one exception to all this quality. Despite the wood-burning oven, the pizzas are still a work in progress. You can't build a great pie with a cardboardlike crust. But given how good all the other food is, it's probably only a matter of time before LaPorta gets his pies down pat, too.

-- Walter Nicholls

Aioli Meditalian Gourmet, 2153 P St. NW, 202-558-6188, Hours: Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company