HELP WANTED: The owner of Grillfish in Washington's West End and Logan Tavern at Logan Circle plans to add a third restaurant to his fiefdom next March, at 1445 P St. NW. Hey, isn't that on the same block as Logan Tavern? "If I didn't sign a lease here, another restaurant would have," says David Winer, the future host of Merkado. "I'd rather compete with myself." Merkado is a twist on the Spanish word for market (mercado) and a hint that the menu will be eclectic. "I had to think about what the neighborhood wanted and what I felt comfortable doing," which included Latin fare, says Winer. But Latin alone "didn't excite me enough." So the concept was eventually broadened to include Asian flavors and a 100-seat design that conveys "an urban cantina crashed into an Asian teahouse." The planned spring opening should give Winer plenty of time to find the one thing he doesn't yet have: a chef to execute his game plan.
MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE: In the wake of so much that's new around Washington, it's easy for diners to overlook the tried and true -- places like the 13-year-old Casa Blanca (1014 Vermont Ave. NW; 202-393-4430), whose signage has it selling "Spanish food" but whose menu embraces Mexican, Salvadoran and Peruvian dishes. The small storefront comes dressed with nothing but the basics: plain tables, plain chairs and a counter in the rear for carryout. Do yourself a favor and stick around. The rewards include a satisying papa rellana -- mashed potato wrapped around a core of beef, egg and olives, then fried -- and crisp morsels of pork partnered with yuca and a sprightly salad. Spinach empanadas taste a little bland, but seviche proves plenty tangy with lime. Meanwhile, arroz con pollo -- roast chicken with rice -- is best for its fluffy yellow grains, veined with peas and pimento, the rice good enough to star on its own. Owner Cesar Guzman is Peruvian, which explains some of Casa Blanca's flavors; his cooks come from Mexico and El Salvador, which explains the rest of the menu.