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A Ripe Persimmon

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 23, 1998

  Richman Review

Turning Tables
It may still be tomato-salad, corn-on-the-cob and soft-shell-crab weather, but Felix in Adams-Morgan is already planning for autumn's chill. After Labor Day, the restaurant's popular Friday night specials of matzoh ball soup, beef brisket and house-made challah will be extended to Sunday nights. That's just in case you can't get home to Mom's for Sunday dinner.
– P.C.R.
When a brand-new restaurant fills its tables without any fanfare, we're likely to give a lot of credit to the location. In the case of Persimmon, which replaced a barbecue joint that didn't last very long, you have to wonder why nobody thought to open a quiet restaurant for grown-ups here before. While most of Bethesda is jampacked with white-tablecloth restaurants, Persimmon has no competitor for many blocks to the south, all the way to Friendship Heights. And unlike the Bethesda restaurants to the north, this one has ample parking at a public lot around the corner.

It's a nice start for a young, fresh restaurant. Persimmon's barbecue origins are masked by a new wall in front of the kitchen, and the dining room has been redecorated by way of a paint job that captures a different fall color on each wall. The place hints of a tight budget, with chairs that are only barely comfortable and tablecloths that always seem to need ironing. Still, the dining room and the menu present a lot of style for the price. The young waiters can be counted on for enthusiastic service, but while some are savvy about food and wine, others don't even know enough to leave breathing room in the wineglass when they pour or to take note of whether diners have the silverware to cope with their entrees. They seem sufficiently wholehearted about their job, though, that I expect they'll all be up to speed before long.

The chef worked at Tahoga in Georgetown, one server tells us. We nod in recognition when we look at the menu. It's fairly small: a couple of soups, five appetizers, five salads, five fish and five meats. Among the first courses, seafood and vegetables play the starring roles. And all the dishes are abundant with colorful ingredients and flavorful accents. Plates are decked out with relishes, salsas and fluffs of shredded cabbage. Sauces and vinaigrettes are vivid with the orange of carrot or the red of beet. Little fritters and spring rolls adorn entrees, and the mashed potatoes are piped into ruffled towers. Dinner begins on a generous note with a basket of crusty bread and a small crock of liver pate. It would be easy to fill up on it before you get to your first course. But portions are generous, so you'll need to pace yourself.

What Persimmon's kitchen does best is cook fish with precision. It's routinely moist and silken, a simple lesson that many restaurants seem incapable of learning. And the soft-shell crab – available as an appetizer and often as an entrée – is so plump and fresh, so crisp-edged from its sauteeing, that there's hardly any point in looking further as long as this delicacy is in season. It's served with whipped potatoes on a pool of grapefruit sauce that tastes like a lightened and heightened beurre blanc.

Mussels in lemongrass broth and the inevitable fried calamari are the other seafood dishes on the appetizer list. But hidden among the salads is a trio of tartares, an offering that turns out to be a fresh, lush disk of chopped raw salmon topped by a layer of raw tuna, both lightly dressed, with bits of mild seviche shrimp surrounding. It's a portion large enough to share.

A couple of the first courses are pasta variations – pleasant, fat, mushroom-filled ravioli with a faint flavor of blue cheese and a salty, glossy brown sauce, and Chinese pot stickers that are really fried won tons filled with a jarring barbecued chicken and accompanied by mango relish and black bean salsa. Far more disconcerting, though, is the carrot ginger soup, an innocent-looking thick orange stock with such a wallop of ginger that it brings tears to your eyes.

Given that all the fish is fresh and flawlessly cooked, you might decide to choose yours by its accompaniments. The smoked trout spring roll with the grilled mahi-mahi is crisp and interesting, though its cilantro rice, carrot puree and wasabi aioli seem a cacophony rather than a team. Sauteed halibut rests on a deliciously crusty and chewy mushroom risotto cake. Sauteed salmon comes with ratatouille and wonderful spinach as well as crispy potato. And barbecued tuna is topped with chopped peanuts and garnished with spicy cabbage, plus rubbery little fried shrimp dumplings. There's a bouillabaisse as well – just plain bouillabaisse without any folderol.

Among the meats, roast chicken stands out. It's unfortunately a mite overcooked, but its crisp skin is irresistible, and it is surrounded by a moat of spicy, soupy vegetable ragout bursting with sweet, smoky kernels of roast corn. Lamb – grilled rack and leg – is thin and flabby, and tenderloin of beef has little juice or flavor, and both their sauces are strongly overreduced.

Something creamy for dessert will end dinner impressively. Persimmon serves creme brulee that reminds you how elegantly smooth and rich it can be, with just a light crackle of glazed sugar on top. And you can hope to hit a night when the house-made ice cream is lemon. Woven with shreds of the peel, this citrus ice cream is a demonstration of how beautifully cream, sugar and acid can complement one another.

One rarely finds angel food cake nowadays, and when it's topped with a berry coulis it's just right for summer. Persimmon should be applauded for offering this attractive low-fat cake, even if it is too sweet and needs to taste more of egg and vanilla. Small adjustments could do wonders for it.

The wine list here is modest in size and price, just like the menu. It's one more factor that invites you to give Persimmon a chance – and to keep giving it another until you find exactly what suits you.

Persimmon – 7003 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. 301/654-9860. Open: for dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No smoking. Prices: appetizers $4 to $12, entrees $17 to $22. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $35 to $55 per person.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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