A Delicious Breeze

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 3, 2009

915 15th St. NW

** (out of four stars)
Sound Check: 75 decibels (Must speak with raised voice)

There are restaurants we're drawn to because we want to refuel with minimal fuss and restaurants we seek out because they let us suspend reality for a few hours.

Somewhere between, say, the drive-through at Popeyes and the opulence of the Inn at Little Washington, there's another, equally useful type of establishment. The place I'm thinking of isn't necessarily a looker, although it offers sufficient comforts. It might not be the first place you'd consider for a date or a birthday, although it could pinch-hit for either occasion.

Siroc is a perfect example of the kind of venue I'm talking about, and it's a restaurant I'm greatly enjoying these days.

Occupying the former Gerard's Place downtown, the setting is small and spare, just 65 seats inside. (Good weather adds 30 seats to the equation, with a patio facing McPherson Square.) The lone holdover from the former occupant is a jewel-toned light fixture whose yellows and oranges are repeated on the walls of the replacement, which otherwise is dressed up with not much more than a few modern paintings. When you walk in the door, whoever is behind the host stand makes you feel like a welcome guest rather than Customer No. 62 of the day.

And when you start reading the menu, you see a chef who wants to lure you in with familiar food even as he slips in a few surprises. Shrimp get served atop a caponata created from pomegranate, and vanilla infuses a vinaigrette drizzled over a salad of endive, orange and pecans.

Every meal has been elevated by at least one dish that rises above the others and shows chef and co-owner Martin Lackovic to be a solid talent. One evening, that dish is octopus salami, so-named for thin slices of what looks like fat-marbled sausage. In the center of the mosaic are dried tomatoes and diced potatoes; shimmering on the surface of the rounds of octopus is arugula pesto. Lovely. Another dinner, the dish that won over our stomachs was a whole (but boneless) branzino, sweet-fleshed and steaming, presented with a nest of spinach ignited with red pepper flakes and roasted potatoes with lemon zest. Everything on the plate was in harmony -- crisp-skinned fish, sassy greens, bright spuds -- and everything satisfied.

Without resorting to fireworks, Lackovic can make an impressive statement.

Which brings us to the handmade pasta. ("We make everything from scratch, A to Z, bread to dessert," Lackovic says.) The shape that stands out is his tagliatelle, feathery and soft but also demonstrating nice bite. I mean that in terms of both texture and taste, since the tagliatelle I sampled at lunch was speckled with black pepper. The pasta gets staged as a turban, with some soft cloves of garlic and sweet coins of scallop that are just warmed through and seasoned to echo the heat of the tagliatelle.

In a lineup of noodles, all of which can be ordered in half-portions, I'd be hard-pressed to choose between the tagliatelle and the chef's lovely capellacci, stamps stuffed with lobster and sweet corn. A splash of tomato oil ties all the elements together. Button-size hats of pasta filled with asparagus and ricotta and moistened with a white cheese sauce are prettier to look at than to eat; the combination is too subtle. Similarly, spinach pappardelle with shrimp and crushed tomatoes is best for its carefully cooked seafood. The green pasta is coiled in a dense clump, and there's no sign of the promised thyme oil to give the dish the boost it needs.

When the chef errs, it's on the side of restraint. In contrast to the wonderful branzino, for example, rockfish baked in parchment with fennel, olives and other vegetables (and unveiled at the table) is less savory, and certainly less forceful, than its many components would suggest.

At its best, his cooking suggests you're eating someplace far more grand than a restaurant where nine entrees are priced at less than $25. Rabbit sausage is enriched with pork fat, upscaled with black truffles and poised on a puddle of polenta. The heady sausage has a texture akin to that of mousse. Lackovic's quail has the power to transport a diner, too. Garlic is tucked beneath the skin of the bird before it goes into a marinade of truffle oil, honey and balsamic vinegar, a bath that swells the quail with richness before it is seared to a crisp bronze. Too bad Siroc's brief wine list drags us back to reality with an uninspired selection of labels.

The kitchen adds little twists here and there that make some things stand out from the expected. An appetizer of roseate prosciutto and shaved Parmesan, for instance, fits in a little fan of peppery pears, while the chicken sandwich is built using pillowy focaccia seasoned with crackling sea salt. Come to think of it, the pulled chicken is secondary to the other details that make the lunch choice so appealing: the bright pesto, the well-dressed salad and the superb roasted potatoes placed between the sandwich halves.

Lackovic, who has cooked around Washington at the Caucus Room downtown and the late Galileo and I Matti, is not the only reason you'll want to return to Siroc after an introduction. The chef's two partners, siblings Keram and Mehdi Dris, and their young underlings do an admirable job of making customers feel at home. You may have seen the brothers' smiles before. Keram, too, once worked at I Matti and at Lavandou in Cleveland Park, while Mehdi comes to Siroc from Cesco Trattoria in Bethesda. The siblings met Lackovic when all three were employed at one or another of chef Roberto Donna's Italian restaurants. The name? Siroc is an Italian word that refers to the warm winds that sweep from North Africa to Italy.

The most original of the desserts, the sweet that adheres most closely to Siroc's roots, is a moist, muffin-size, orange-sweetened panettone served with a light caramel vanilla cream. Yes, you've seen molten chocolate cake on menus a hundred times, but the one served here is a fluted version that underscores the recipe's basic goodness. Ice creams, including a bracing lemon, smack of quality.

As I make my restaurant rounds during the recession, I'm sometimes shocked at how quiet the dining rooms are in even some of the starrier establishments. Siroc, which has been open for less than four months, has bustled with business every time I've dropped by, including a recent Monday night.

There's a reason for that. Siroc brims with affordable taste.

Open: lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. All major credit cards. No smoking. Valet parking Friday and Saturday. Metro: McPherson Square. Prices: lunch entrees $12 to $21, dinner entrees $18 to $32.

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