A Polished Presentation: Tom Sietsema Reviews Eventide in Clarendon

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, May 10, 2009

3165 Wilson Blvd., Arlington

**1/2 (out of four)
Sound Check: 70 decibels (Conversation is easy)

Eventide compels you to slow down and take in the scene as you're walking by. The lively bunch behind the broad picture window look like the sort of people you'd be pleased to meet at a cocktail party. Step inside and you'll discover a lounge where the bartenders are happy to share their cocktail secrets and where the snacks include soft, warm house-baked pretzels served with a swab of coarse peach mustard and a little pot of minced deviled ham.

Or better yet, make a reservation for the dining room one floor up. To reach it, you pass a gracious hostess or two and a hall lined with antique mirrors, then navigate stairs that lead to one of the most fetching interiors around. Eighteen-foot-long blue velvet curtains here and there add a touch of drama and create zones of intimacy in the airy warehouse; exposed terra-cotta walls and soaring windows are all that remain of what used to be a collection of small businesses in a building that dates to 1925. It took the owners -- veteran restaurateurs Dave Pressley, Nick Langman and Peter Pflug -- more than two years to bring Eventide to life, but their efforts have paid off in a big way.

Biscuits are likely to be your first taste here. Baked in-house and served warm, they're easy to continue eating through a meal. Too many biscuits might put a dent in your appetite, though, which would be a shame. A lot of what follows deserves your full consideration.

One of several attractions is an entree that trumpets spring with bright-pink grilled salmon teetering on a verdant garden of spring, snow and sugar snap peas as well as tender gnocchi. A huge lamb shank with enough meat for two demonstrates more swagger, rounded out as it is with a snappy bison sausage cassoulet made with black-eyed peas. I like that even the house salad merits care. Slender baby carrots and green beans, plucked from the water before they're thoroughly cooked, are arranged with several shades of lettuce leaves that have been lightly dressed with a fine red-wine vinaigrette. Herbed crackers complete the picture.

The pasta choices are likely to force tough decisions at the table: Which one to leave out? Chef Miles Vaden toiled at Sonoma on Capitol Hill and Notti Bianche in Foggy Bottom, and he counts Todd Gray of Equinox downtown as a mentor. So I suppose it should come as no surprise that Vaden's risotto is sumptuous. Late winter brought a dense and creamy squash risotto ennobled with a forest of woodsy mushrooms and panes of Parmesan cheese, the dish garnished with micro-greens to lighten up the party.

Perhaps the hautest entree on the menu is the butter-slicked tagliatelle set off with pink "meatballs" of lobster that suggest dim sum by way of Milan. The sweetness of the seafood is flattered by the lushness of its herbs; the pasta, which also hints of brandy, avoids overrichness by including oven-dried tomatoes in the swirl. Tender cannelloni hiding shredded braised rabbit are presented in a tiny ceramic pot. The two pasta-wrapped bundles look adorable, but they need more of what the menu description promises (sage, garlic, mustard cream sauce). As is, the first course is somewhat anemic.

The menu isn't long, but it satisfies a spectrum of tastes. That old reliable, roast chicken, shows up, but served in such a way that it's elevated from the flock. Its loose stuffing of croutons, currants and pine nuts is similar to the divine bread salad served with the roast chicken made famous by Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. Foie gras isn't exactly a staple in this part of town, but the luxury can be enjoyed here in the form of a poached and chilled opener flanked by seasonal condiments, including a sassy rhubarb mustard and crisp-tart minced rhubarb. It's an appetizer you'd expect to see on a menu somewhere more glamorous than Wilson Boulevard, and it's priced to please, at $13.

Cake infused with olive oil is the new "it" dessert. One place to check out the trend is Eventide, where the moist round is lavished with huckleberries whose juices seep into the cake and turn something satisfying into something greater. Chocoholics will enjoy the intense mousse garnished with pistachio crumbs; fruit fanciers should consider caramelized bananas scattered on a light folded crepe, the inside of which holds rum-spiked pastry cream.

It all sounds swell. And much of it is. Tweaks here and there would make the cooking even more compelling, though. The carrot puree with the roast chicken? Right now, the thin sauce just adds color to the plate. The grilled Swiss chard with that lamb shank? It's unpleasantly bitter. One night only, we got a basket of biscuits whose gummy centers told us they had departed the oven too soon.

The three owners of this Arlington hot spot, conveniently located across the street from the Clarendon Metro station, know diners' frustrations. So they set out to create a place to eat and drink that sidesteps the usual issues we have with a lot of restaurants.

Eventide spaces its tables so that diners don't feel as if they should introduce themselves to their neighbors when they sit down; if you're looking for a place to spread out and swap secrets, this is it. Eventide is quieter than a lot of its peers, too, thanks to built-in noise buffers.

It's tough to fake warmth and concern. The restaurant solved the problem by inviting applicants who had never worked in one before, figuring that service skills can be taught, but smiles and smarts are natural.

Few details escaped the owners' attention. The wine list, which celebrates the Americas, is long and interesting, with plenty of bottles priced at $40 and under; order a red wine and it will be as cool as it should be. Visit the bar with a group, and you'll appreciate the rounded extensions on the poured-concrete counter that allow three or more of you to congregate and still face one another. And by the time you read this, Arlington might have added to its too-few rooftop dining choices; Eventide's brick retreat will feature tables with built-in lights and a menu of chilled dishes.

Restaurants might think they're in the business of serving food, but they're actually peddling more than that: an experience. Eventide does such an admirable job of seeing to our comfort and making diners feel like neighbors that it could probably offer a menu half as good and still fill its seats. But that's not this restaurant's style, and thank goodness for that.

Open: dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday brunch 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Street parking. Smoking on the rooftop bar. Prices: appetizers $8 to $13, entrees $20 to $30.

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