Just look what's happened to the shopping center restaurant! Alfredo's Garden is a mere corner of the Esplanade shopping mall, just a bit of a space squeezing in a long bar and a handful of tables, so wedged into the mall that it doesn't even have its own restrooms (you have to ask the bartender for the key--a difficult task during happy hour--and walk down the mall corridor). But packed into that space is a respectable Italian kitchen, with veal and fish dishes of quality accompanied by fresh vegetables. It's a long way from the old shopping mall pizza parlor. (But that's only a figurative comparison, since across the hall is Alfredo's cafeteria-style pizza place.)
Nice-looking place, Alfredo's Garden, with splashy dark flowered wallpaper and a skylight joining window walls to form what looks like a greenhouse. (A hint: Remember the purpose of a greenhouse; sitting in those windows can get pretty hot on a sunny day.) Pink and white linens and pink cushions on the chairs add to an already pretty room. It retains, however, a certain shopping-center ambiance; tables are close, happy hour is noisy, and service is about what you would expect at the umbrella counter of a department store on a rainy day--it does the job.
Alfredo's menu is short--five pastas, seven fish dishes, six veals, a beef and a steak--and remains the same at lunch and dinner. Since we generally expect to pay more for dinner than lunch, the $8.50 to $10 main dishes seem reasonable at dinner, and the $7 pastas are below the price norm downtown. One can't, however, order a half-portion of pasta, so either you share one as an appetizer or you're likely to make it your dinner.
The pastas weren't memorable; fettucine Alfredo has been slightly heavy and doughy, its cream sauce without much character; and spaghetti carbonara is a delicate version with prosciutto rather than more pungent bacon or pancetta, and not a lot of punch to its egg-cheese coating. But they are nevertheless pleasant, and the linguini with clams, ringed by a half-dozen briny clams in the shell, is a good dish, illustrating the appeal of simplicity.
Veal hits about the same level--moderately good--and is plentiful: There are three large scallops per portion of properly pale veal. But it tends to be overpounded, therefore slightly mushy, and is apt to be swimming in butter. Scaloppine Alfredo is an agreeable idea--simply, veal scallops topped by sauteed fresh mushrooms and a layer of cheese, but the cheese was overheated so it was rubbery. The veal is also available in other simple preparations--with lemon butter, marsala, prosciutto and sage or with eggplant, prosciutto and provolone. All are certainly within the capability of a small kitchen. Chicken breasts, treated like veal scallops as a daily special on my visits, were even better than the veal, pounded and sauteed and topped with fresh asparagus, slightly overcooked but a fine complement to the chicken. As for fish, it has been fresh and moist, particularly the rockfish, which is available broiled or sauteed with a smothering of green peppers and onions. If you like your fish dishes robust, this is a good choice; the shrimp fra diavolo, on the other hand, is much less deviled than one might expect, and its thin tomato sauce added little to the otherwise nicely cooked shrimp. The chef did better with a light tomato sauce on the mussels as an appetizer, though somebody in the kitchen neglected to remove the sand from the mussels.
There is nothing ambitious and outstanding in all this; it is, after all, a shopping-center corner rather than a full- blown, ambitious restaurant. But it takes care with its vegetables, one day diced zucchini in a highly seasoned tomato sauce, another day fresh green beans similarly seasoned. Salad is another matter, however. Its carved radish and pickled vegetable garnish don't hide the insipid and vinegary iceberg lettuce underneath.
And dessert careened from soggy cannole with leaden filling to a tough grainy chocolate cake with a greasy imitation mousse filling to sfogliatelle that might once have been good but was chewy and ice cold. The waiter, rattling off a long list of desserts, said they were all made on the premises. I hope not.
Alfredo's Garden has things to appreciate; its wine list is reasonably priced and, if its orvieto is representative, carefully chosen. And it has things to deplore; its house white is served warm. It is, in all, a bit of a restaurant without many presumptions; thus it shows how far Washington's everyday Italian restaurants have come.