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Lighthearted Noir

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Aug. 9, 1998

  Richman Review

Turning Tables
Bottled water or from the tap? The choice is not yours at Makoto, the Japanese restaurant on MacArthur Boulevard. Owner Yoshi Ito vows that since he won't drink D.C. tap water, he won't serve it to his customers. Thus, he says that he uses filtered water for his ice cubes and that his soups are made from that ice. For customers, though, it means that drinking water costs them $1 a bottle; when one frustrated patron filled her glass with tap water from the restroom, she was asked to leave. "This is my restaurant," declares the owner. "We're doing it my way." – P.C.R.
"How retro." My guest had a point.

A waiter whipped by our table carrying a tray of martinis with four olives each and a clear brown drink with three cherries. A Manhattan? Are we returning to those?

Slipping back half a century isn't required to enjoy Ardeo. The margaritas are everything they should be, and the wine list, definitely up-to-date, offers 13 choices by the glass and a healthy inventory of today's merlots, pinot noirs and zinfandels. The kitchen builds its entrees into towers and paints its dessert plates with sauces. It stocks its spice shelves with lemon grass and truffle oil as no chef of the '40s or '50s would have done.

But still, Ardeo is a restaurant with that long-gone supper club look. Those high-back banquettes and etched-glass dividers and ceiling fixtures do it. The chairs owe something to Frank Lloyd Wright. But most evocative are the paintings, scenes in restaurants of glamorous people with the rumpled chic and blank stares that bring to mind Spillane and Bogart and Bacall. A lighthearted noir look. One glance, and you make a note to consider trading in your polo shirt and plaid shorts for a sleek black dress or a trench coat and a fedora on your next visit.

Cleveland Park is getting mighty interesting these days.

Once you get past the cool, suave look of Ardeo, you realize it has an even greater distinction: It is packed with waiters, enough to really take care of the customers. They work as teams, and even more astonishing, they seem to know what they are doing. One evening, as we tasted the pinot noir the waiter recommended, a look of disappointment must have passed across our faces. He paused only a minute, then volunteered that the wine was also sold by the glass, so if we didn't like it, he'd have no problem taking back the bottle and bringing us another choice. This was a waiter who paid attention, took responsibility and thought creatively.

Ardeo is part of the growing empire of Ashok Bajaj, who also owns 701, the Bombay Club and the Oval Room and has brought in chef Trent Conry to supervise the group.

Ardeo's chef de cuisine is David Nugent, who was sous-chef at Nora. As Nugent's lineage suggests, the food is trendy New American. The meal begins with a basket of good bread (Uptown Bakery is a few steps away) and a white bean dip faintly seasoned with Indian spices.

Then you can go in many directions. Heading to or from a movie? You could have just a burger – gently handled meat, seared and sandwiched between grilled slices of country bread, accompanied by excellent from-scratch fries, mesclun, tomatoes and goat cheese. Or you could eat lightly with an entree salad of mesclun, asparagus, smoked salmon, smoked trout and barely marinated scallop seviche (though if your greens are as salty as mine were, you should send the salad back for reconstructing).

Stepping up to more serious meals, there's a small list of pastas and a substantial list of appetizers and elaborate entrees. The emphasis here is on creativity (sometimes to the exclusion of logic), so you'll find strawberries along with Stilton in your spinach salad, grill marks on your romaine, and yellow tomatoes forming the thin, acidic base of the gazpacho. The inevitable fried calamari and mussels steamed with beer and garlic are just fine, though. And to balance disappointments such as scallops in a wan red-pepper coulis or too-vinegary portobellos, there's a black bean soup whose smooth and gentle texture hides a thrilling jolt of spices. I only wish its topping of grilled bananas were exchanged for less-sweet and firmer plantains.

With their long list of ingredients, the entrees are bound to offer something delightful – seasoned mashed potatoes, perhaps, or perfectly cooked asparagus – even if the dish as a whole doesn't succeed. Thus, limp linguine can be ignored as you savor its marvelous head-on fresh shrimp and julienned vegetables, brightened by slivers of winy green olives. A huge soft-shell crab is fried so lightly and is so deliciously surrounded by a moat of corn ragout with crisped leeks that the mushy texture of the shellfish is hardly noticed.

Roast chicken is usually a good test of a restaurant. Here it's crisp-skinned and bursting with juicy flavor, on a bed of soothing Israeli couscous, small beads of wheat infused with chicken-ness and tossed with asparagus and charred scallions. Why, then, is the rack of lamb flabby and bland, shot through with fat? The double-thick pork chop chewy and steamed-tasting? The sake-marinated sea bass boring in its Asian consomme? Potato-crusted cod is just right, the shredded-potato wrapper crunchy and the fish inside so moist it nearly slides right out of its crust. But its New England clam chowder sauce with peas, carrots and corn is like something that belongs on chicken a la king.

Ardeo's kitchen needs refining, which is no surprise for a new restaurant where a sous-chef is just coming into his own. What's unexpected is the sure hand evident in the desserts. One of the best light desserts in town is Ardeo's rhubarb soup, with a golden island of mango mousse that could float on air as well as in this not-too-sweet fruit syrup. Praline semifreddo is a soft yet dense sort of mascarpone ice cream, crunchy with bits of caramelized nut candy and layered with filmy crisp butter cookies. The ice cream might be a bit cloying without the sharpness of its strawberry balsamic sauce, an inspired addition. Chocolate souffle cake is like some sweet primeval ooze of dark chocolate, with ice cream melting into it. Berry creme brulee is a rich and satisfying rendition. But if you're after pecans, stick to that semifreddo, since the pecan-banana bread pudding slips into damp sugariness and the chocolate pecan tart hasn't as much flavor as its bourbon ice cream.

Ardeo is one of those restaurants that reverberate with promise. I'll look forward to its honing its dishes over the coming months. But the crowds packing it, even on weekdays, aren't waiting for any such thing.

Ardeo – 3311 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202/244-6750. Open: for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Smoking at bar only. Prices: appetizers $4.75 to $7.25, entrees $7.95 to $17.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $35 to $55 per person.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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