An undetected find in Dupont Circle: Eola entices from drinks to dessert

Eola's goat's milk panna cotta includes fiery brittle.
Eola's goat's milk panna cotta includes fiery brittle. (Scott Suchman)
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By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, April 11, 2010

2020 P St.

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

Part of why I always look forward to having dinner at Eola has nothing to do with the cooking and everything to do with how much consideration the restaurant puts into making the dining room an excuse to linger.

Unlike in so many new places, the music in this sunny Dupont Circle townhouse doesn't force you to raise your voice. Unlike too much of the competition, the gleaming mission oak tables at Eola are so big and broad, they can handle the decoration, everything you order and your elbows, if you're so inclined. Table 1, in the front window, is a choice spot if you like to people-watch with your meal.

Order a pisco sour or a Sazerac, and its glass holds something that tastes like a classic rather than a trend du jour. When the bread comes, it's warm. As for the butter, it's room-temperature and laced with herbs. The amuse-bouche always involves something intriguing (pork heart!) and inevitably triggers expectations: How will the chef surpass a lush spoonful of rockfish with lemon and fennel, or a golden pork fritter dabbed with orange-flavored yogurt?

With an appetizer of goat's milk panna cotta, for starters. An edible fashion show, it's a cool and silken custard whose slight tang is cut, literally, by a pane of brittle, hot withcayenne, embedded in its surface. Surrounding the centerpiece are curry-spiked nuts, tangerine segments and glassy shards of more brittle. The accents joust in the mouth. The creation suggests a chef who knows what he's doing.

Daniel Singhofen, the guy behind the slit of a kitchen window, is someone to watch. Not every dish sings the way that jazzy panna cotta does, but there's enough on his concise menu, just a dozen appetizers and entrees long, to prompt a diner to make a habit of the place. And I wish more people would. The 26-seat main dining room has been underpopulated on every visit I've made since Eola opened in September.

If you haven't been in yet, here's what else you've been missing: a veloute of celery root, hot and creamy and pure, poured into a soup bowl decorated with marbles of apple stained purple with port. The combination of the rich soup and the zingy fruit is at once simple and compelling. I also happily recall a block of pork belly, delicious in its piggyness and mounted on tiny red peas and crisp fried kale. The appetizers have also included a perfect soft egg surrounded by mellow beans and crumbled pork sausage; the dish gets richer when the yolk is pierced and becomes a golden sauce in the bowl. Eola's plump claws-and-all squab looks like a character from Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds," but it's terrific eating: dense, succulent and smelling of black truffles. A garland of root vegetables serenades the star. Singhofen is fond of using less common grains to shore up his centerpieces; hence the barley with the smoked trout, a satisfying entree speckled red with French chili powder, and the wild rice with the veal breast.

Most of my visits were made during winter, which explains the robustness of the dishes you're reading about. But the compositions are telling. I can only imagine the fun Singhofen and crew might have with soft-shell crabs and rhubarb (not to overlook blueberries and serious tomatoes come summer).

The chef, 31, is fairly new to the Washington scene but arrives with credentials. In Orlando, he worked at the respected K Restaurant; in Naples, he served as a line cook at the Ritz-Carlton.

The kitchen is sometimes careless; an entree of sauteed beef with farro seemed to have been seasoned by Morton's. (Oversalting is an occasional problem.) The cooks should keep in mind that errors are exaggerated when they're served in large portions. A mound of paprika-spiced pappardelle, for instance, was wasted on a rabbit ragu that mostly tasted wet.

The most consistent course at Eola is dessert. It's always a pleasure. Pastry chef Donald Smith, also 31, is adept at taking something expected and spinning it into something elegant. His notion of a carrot cake is a many-layered pyramid of fine cake alternating with cream cheese frosting, flanked by a scoop of white chocolate ice cream. Apple pie is rethought as two braided turnovers: The fried pastries, garnished with ground pistachios to break up the beige, look like empanadas; they open to reveal a lovely fruit center and are kept cool with creme fraiche ice cream. In another clever twist, Smith props a round ice cream sandwich on a ripple of corn "snow" (finely ground sugar-coated popcorn). As winter gave way to spring, Smith added a frozen lemon mousse, studded with shards of crisp meringue, to the equation. Meanwhile, checkerboard sugar cookies served with the bill keep you thanking their baker after all the plates are cleared.

Eola is a little package hiding some nice surprises: a crackerjack.

* * *

A breezy title: Eola, which Singhofen owns with his parents, derives from Eolian, meaning "carried by the wind."

Open: Dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Major credit cards accepted.

Metro: Dupont Circle.

Prices: Appetizers $9 to $12, entrees $24 to $32.

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