Open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday, Sunday 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Friday, Saturday 6 p.m. to 2 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations. Free parking at Eagle Liquors lot. Prices: Appetizers $3 to $4.25; main courses $10 to $15; desserts $3.25. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $30 to $35 a person.
Here is, for a change, a restaurant that does not unduly tease your expectation. Linda's Mesquite Grill, it calls itself. 34th and M is its corner -- just a dark fringe of Georgetown. You picture red bandannas, cowboy boots and pigtails. And the menu -- rolled up and tied with a ribbon -- offers you nothing more seductively verbal than frogs' legs, artichoke, swordfish, shrimp, filet mignon. There's no oversell here.
Thus you are pleasantly surprised by the dim candlelight and deiling spots, the grand piano -- and even the nightclub act -- and the waiters in black tie and black vest who throw into thhe menu recitation everu bit of loving description that the scroll left out. Out friendly young waiter from Arizona explained that mesquite burns 40 percent hotter than charcoal, so it cooks more quickly and does not dry out the food. He's hot on the stuff.
But Linda's is no cowboy bar; it is an upscale restaurant with a lot of atmosphere, and althogh it's a bit frayed about the edges it makes the point that it is festive. There are dark walls and stained-glass panels, carpeting and area rugs on brick floors, and service that is attentive, prompt, careful and, if a mite unsophisticated, at least very comfortable.
To start there are two soups -- cold cucumber and seafood (which also bordered on cold, but was otherwise creamy and pleasant) -- plus three hot and two cold appetizers, the latter being oysters on the half-shell and carpaccio. Now, carpaccio is a wonderful concept, a variation on tartare steak. Paper-thin sliced raw beef is served with a mayonnaise-like sauce sharpened with capers, mustard and lemon. In this case, though, a layer of sauce is spread on the plate and topped with the beef so that there is far more sauce than beef. You can taste so little of the beef that you might as well order a plate of sauce, which is certainly tangy and pleasant. The price is low ($3), but even so the predominance should be meat, and the sauce should be drizzled on top or served on the side so that its amount can be controlled.
Still, the carpaccio is better than thhe frong' legs, which have a nice smoky taste from the grill and are moist from careful timing, but are totally tasteless little legs that might as well have been grilled anything. Artichokes are also grilled, on a wooden skewer, and like the frogs' legs are served with herbed butter. But again they taste of butter, smoke and herbs, and could taste just as good if they were grilled herbed bread. The menu also offers baked mussels, but the kitchen doesn't always back up that offer. In all, the appetizers can be missed with no serious loss.
The restaruant's highlights are among the main dishes. Salmon, for instance, has been cut thick and grilled to external crispness with its interior just edging past rawness. It is soft and moist, with a fresh salmon flavor overlaid by earthy smoke. Lamb chops, too, are cut thick and cooked rare, crusty with thhat wonderful woodsy taste thhthe mesquite imparts. Mesquite has a strong and slightly wild taste, wonderful on meats and fish that have their own definite flavor. It works well with ssteak, though at Linda's the beef has not been seared enough, so thhat the surface is an unappetizing gary. And the carpetbagger, stuffed with oysters, is plintiful, thick and tender beef but the oysters have had little to them but a tinny afterstate.
Swordfish would be ideal from a mesquite grill, aand once it was, having been cut thin and cooked so that it was crusty and still moist. Another time, though, the fish was just as skillfully cooked but tasteless and chewy, with a wateriness that made us wonder if it had been -- frozen and badly thawed. The grill also offers boneless trout and scallops, and shrimp, too though we would improve tham substantially or wipe them off the menu. The shrimp are strung on wooden skewers and cooked so tough and dry that we couldn't even slide them off the skewers.
Ordering right, however-the salmon, lamb, a plain steak or swordfish if it is promished to be truly fresh -- brings you something unique in Washington: a beautifully cooked and wood-smoke-flavored grilled dish.
What comes alongside could use improvement, but shows effort. Sauce is served in small pitchers, and one is grateful for being able to control its application to the meat. For lamb or beef there is a creamy and nearly tasteless marsala sauce; for fish, a strongly lemon hollandaise that one day tasted good but was curdled, another day smooth in teture but acrid tasting. Vegetables are fresh, a melange of sliced thing like carrots, turnips, zucchini and broccoli, ssauteed, and crunchy, though one day too raw and biter. Then there is a pleasant little new potato, steamed and sliced with the skin left on, doused with sour cream. The bread is pallid Frence style. And the garnishes are clumsy-looking, the likes of hunks of green pepper on the appetizers and the sour cream on the main dish leaking into places it doesn't belong.
While the wine list is small, if offers good value, especially among the California cabernets in the $13 and under range. You can even find a decent California wine for $7 and a perfectly fine sparkling wine for $20.
Desserts are more gimmicky than ambitious, but need not be faulted for that. There is, for instance, a creamy and boozy banana dessert, with the caramel sweetness of brown sugar, ice cream, whipped cream and several liqueurs combining to a lick-the-spoon deliciousness. Like Charley's Crab, Linda's serves strawberries with pepper as a dessert, but here it is simply a matter of dipping them yourself into a mixture of confectioners' sugar, nutmeg and white pepper interesting and refreshing, but nothing more. And there is a fruit-and-cheese plate with several decently ripe cheeses and a fair assortment of fruits.
Linda's newness shows, and rough edges need to be filed down. But if you concentrate o its claim to uniqueness the mesquite grilling and expect a clubby evening of music rather than depending on the quiet to talk, Linda's has something special to offer.