Sublime for Wine
3435 Connecticut Ave. NW
Open: dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 9:30 p.m., Friday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Metro: Cleveland Park. Street parking. Prices: appetizers $4 to $14, entrees $11 to $26.
One in an occasional series of looks at previously reviewed restaurants.
If you like wine, you'll love Dino. And if you enjoy discussing wine as much as you like drinking it, you have a great friend in the man behind the name, Dean Gold, the co-owner of this bustling Italian retreat in Cleveland Park. I've never been there when he hasn't been a reassuring presence in the two dining rooms, sharing stories of his adventures abroad, encouraging guests to try a grape new discovery or steering them through the gems, great and small that he has amassed in a tome known as the "wine book." (One sleeper of note: cantina del pino freisa, a red sparkler with lots of fruit and fizz and acid.)
Gold clearly cares as much about your pleasure as about putting more dough in his pocket; there are loads of great bottles for less than $40 -- and, amazingly, not a chardonnay or a cabernet sauvignon by the glass on the list. His passion is further evinced by a program that knocks 33 percent off wines priced $50 or higher on Sunday and Monday, and allows patrons to bring in their own wine, free of corkage fees, on Tuesday and Thursday. Perusing the inventory online, a wine maven of my acquaintance swooned over its structure, descriptions and contents, concluding, with no other knowledge of the restaurant or of Gold, that she'd "love to have dinner with this guy."
A new face in the kitchen merits a fresh look. Stephan Boillon hails from Florida, where he last worked as chef de cuisine at the eclectic Chef Allen's near Miami, home to "Meyer lemon roasted wild Florida shrimp" and "cashew- and mint-marinated grilled Colorado lamb chops." (Gold found Boillon on Craigslist. "The best $25 I ever spent!" he says.)
In his new role, Boillon is tasked to follow a more simple and rustic recipe, and he proved himself in late summer with good shopping habits and a restrained hand. Pals and I marveled over salads featuring sweet, fragrant heirloom cantaloupe with winy prosciutto, and tomatoes in a dark rainbow of colors, minimally dressed with olive oil. Light and fluffy meatballs, delicately enhanced with garlic and herbs, were supported by a fresh-tasting tomato sauce, and whole branzino put us right at the seashore, save for the starched napkins in our laps. The fish, excited with capers, lemon and a spicy olive oil, was flawless.
Not everything that visit made a good first impression -- the overbreaded, mozzarella-plumped squash blossoms were ringers for ballast, and rack of lamb was mute -- but between Gold's banter and a number of thoroughly cleaned plates, there was a lot to lure me back.
Or so I thought. A full month later, I was eating at Dino again, tallying up inconsistencies and wondering if the chef was away. The kitchen that on one evening sends out a super-juicy steak, cooked just as you ask and seasoned with little more than a splash of balsamic vinegar, is the same kitchen that on this night served a bland, woolly mammoth-size pork shank that further disappointed its recipients with an odd brown gravy and roasted root vegetables that were sweet enough to be labeled dessert. Scallops and asparagus were wasted on underdone two-tone pasta shells.
And yet, for every slip there are details that help right the equation. Lamb shoulder -- braised in red wine and fresh herbs, then shredded and stirred into a spaghetti-like pasta -- is one of those soothing dishes you want to keep all to yourself. The gelati are churned in-house; they're very good. Dino also looks after its littlest patrons with a kids' menu (of tomato-sauced polenta, spaghetti and meatballs and calamari) that's apt to win parents' affections, too.
Brace yourself for an aural assault. Like a lot of hot spots are, Dino is loud, especially on the ground floor, where a server might have to shout her welcome. The ears get a bit of a respite on the second floor, where the choice seats are any of the four booths. Throughout the restaurant, a color scheme of deep golds, burnt oranges and splashes of turquoise suggest the American Southwest more than Italy. More obvious charm comes by way of staff members who follow the boss's lead. They are an informed and amiable bunch, eager to share their thoughts and recommendations with customers.
Sweets are a mixed lot: berries suffering from an overdose of balsamic vinegar, chocolate-filled crepes that need to be served warmer and gelato doused with wan espresso. ("Where's the crema?" a food chum wondered aloud.) My advice to a diner: Focus on cheese. Gold, a buyer for Whole Foods Market in another life, offers a mostly Italian selection to rival what's served at some of the city's starrier restaurants, and the choices come with clusters of Concord grapes, sugared walnuts and toasted baguette.
Gold is pure gold at Dino. With more time and more practice, I hope his kitchen can catch up.
To chat with Tom Sietsema online, go to washingtonpost.com on Wednesdays at 11 a.m.