Sweet and savory: Tom Sietsema reviews Acacia Bistro

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, March 14, 2010

Acacia Bistro
4340 Connecticut Ave. NW.

* * (out of four stars)
Sound check: 69 decibels (Conversation is easy)

The grocery list for one of the best bites at Acacia Bistro is a mere four ingredients. If you've never experienced anchovies slipped between small pieces of French bread sauteed in olive oil and a suggestion of butter, you're missing out on one of the simplest pleasures around: The faint crunch of the hot bread gives way to a gentle shock as the tongue hits the racy center. "Anchovy toasts," as the menu bills them, don't need any embellishment, but they come with a cool dip of lemony mayonnaise that only makes the munch more irresistible.

Liliana Dumas is back in the kitchen, this time in restaurant-starved Van Ness and as a headliner rather than a helpmate. The native of Liguria, in northwestern Italy, is best known for keeping diners in their seats for dessert at, among other places, Assaggi Mozzarella Bar in Bethesda and the late Locanda on Capitol Hill. At the new restaurant, the 73-year-old chef is doing savory as well as sweet food, while also charming her fan club with appearances in the 50-seat dining room.

One night, I catch her bussing a customer's cheek. Another time, I spot her sending out a new dish for a patron to taste. The ambassador of Monaco, who lives nearby, is partial to her delicate, deep-fried pastries stuffed with squash, leeks and Parmesan, says Dumas. (Full disclosure: I've been a recipient of some of those edible previews.) Most of the time, however, only the chef's head is visible behind a curtain or a window looking into Acacia Bistro's tiny kitchen.

There are small plates to begin; $18 gets you three. Turkish meatballs dotted with yogurt resemble flat sliders. They're dense, to my taste, and not nearly as much fun as the herbed shrimp, squid and mussels kissed with citrus and glistening with olive oil. Eggplant with a cover of cheese and a lackluster tomato sauce takes a back seat to the simpler crostini slathered with local goat cheese charged with rosemary and black pepper. Anything spreadable should be explored. Dumas's bacalao, one of those many small plates, is a sensational mash of dried cod cooked in warm milk and flavored with garlic, parsley and sauteed leeks. Her flatbreads are good, too. Rugged chorizo and melted manchego on a crackery canvas is among the choices that I like to share with friends as we settle in.

The presence behind the sleek bar is Dumas's son, Michel, who gathers wines from all over and offers them in four serving sizes, from a half-glass to a full bottle. His collection of 80 or so labels is priced to elicit a smile from whoever picks up the check (most bottles are under $40), and the inventory guarantees something pleasant to accompany the chef's delicate cod sparked with capers or homey veal chunks paired with grill-branded polenta.

Six burners and a single grill limit what the chef can do. She doesn't make her own pastas at Acacia Bistro, but that doesn't mean some of them aren't homemade. One of the best, a Ligurian special of spinach pansotti glossed with a butter-and-sage sauce, turned out to be the handiwork of Dumas's husband, Maurice, her sidekick at the late Trattoria Liliana on Connecticut Avenue NW. On doctor's orders, he no longer cooks full time, although he brings to the bistro some of his efforts from home, including herbs and vegetables from the couple's garden in Alexandria. Liliana Dumas gets credit for a dish no one at my table wanted to share after they tried it: Bowtie pasta decorated with sweet flakes of crab meat, cranked up with black pepper and swabbed with vodka cream sauce is too delicious to pass along.

Lunch finds light streaming through the glass walls and lots of panini (grilled portobello with goat cheese; a twist on a Cuban sandwich using chicken) on the menu. The burgers lean to the good-for-you: Picture patties of salmon, buffalo or turkey, the last thin but juicy and perked up with crumbles of feta cheese. All the sandwiches come with a nice salad of mixed greens dressed in a teasing vinaigrette.

It's not always smooth sailing here. Gnocchi might be pasty when it leaves the kitchen. Leg of lamb was overcooked -- twice. The young waiters are cordial but not very attentive (it's hard to catch their eye when you need wine or the bill), and the tables are too small to accommodate everything you order. Otherwise, I like the arty, industrial dining room of high ceilings and brushed-concrete floors.

Of course, you save room for dessert here. Dumas's cakes and other confections are appreciated for their moistness and restraint. Pistachio, chocolate, chestnut or pear, rather than sugar, are flavors apt to get played up in her winning recipes. It doesn't hurt that the woman who made them sometimes delivers them to the table: another motherly touch.

* * *

Behind the scene: The sight of healthful drinks and packaged snacks on a table near the kitchen makes sense if you know that Acacia Bistro belongs to the owners of Wellness Cafe on the Hill.

Open: Lunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Major credit cards accepted. Street parking.

Metro: Van Ness/UDC

Prices: Lunch appetizers $5 to $12, sandwiches $7 to $10, entrees $13 to $17; dinner appetizers $4 to $12, entrees $14 to $25.

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