Open seven days a week for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. Reservations suggested. MC, V, AE, DC. Prices: appetizers $3.50, entrees $7.95 to $14.95, desserts $3.50. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $25 to $30 a person.
New Orleans has the Brennans, New York has David Keh, Chicago has Rich Melman, Philadelphia has Steve Poses. In Washington we have the Wolins -- Jason, Joel and mama Rose, a family of restaurateurs responsible for, by now, more than a half- dozen restaurants, beginning with the long-gone Hot Diggity Dog, then on to 2091/2, the now-defunct Champagne/Beaujolais, Mrs. Simpson's, Foggy Bottom Cafe, Georgetown Bar & Grill, and the early days of Bootsie, Winky & Miss Maude. Now the family has gone Italian. Or rather, New American/Italian, at the refurbished Intrigue.
This once-dark cave of a restaurant has been brightened with fresh paint and a beautiful bar at the courtyard entrance and its mood lightened with a hit parade of theatrical photos (including mama Rose's). The redecoration looks simple -- a bit of chrome and light wood, a few flowers -- and the two low-ceilinged rooms still have the always comfortable banquettes of the formerly baronial Intrique. Now, tastefulness has been added.
The menu is pure Wolin: lowercase presentations of fresh foods, accented with such trendy ingredients as balsamic vinegar, basil oil, onion marmalade, sun-dried tomatoes, porcini mushrooms and roasted peppers. And like its sibling restaurants, the Intrigue offers food for a variety of appetites, from serious grilled fish and veal scaloppine to caf,e fare such as hamburgers, chicken or shrimp salad and pastas, to sampler dinners for two that allow you to taste a fuller range of the menu. Yes, it gets a little cute with liver named after Sinatra and pasta immortalizing Sophia Loren (although I can't imagine why they would name a veal sandwich after the Andrea Doria). Still, since this is one of the few restaurants within walking distance of the Kennedy Center, a choice including light and heavy, quick and leisurely meals is particularly welcome. Our waiter one evening managed a heroic performance of getting us through three courses and off to the theater in time.
All this freshening and lightening of menu and environment has not yet, though, sufficiently influenced the kitchen itself. While there is some sparklingly good food, too much of it is heavy handed, a swamp of heavy sauces, overbreading and dense seasonings that overwhelm the underlying flavors.
Among the five appetizers -- all at $3.50 and therefore most a good value -- are delicious soups, one day a pur,ee of chick peas with tomato, basil and parmesan, another day a cold zucchini pur,ee of remarkable flavor. And the fried mozzarella is a very good job, the three pillows of cheese in a light and crunchy batter, served with a lovely raw tomato relish, though the mozzarella could have benefited from the traditional anchovy butter as well. And you can't go very wrong with a green salad in a balsamic vinegar- olive oil dressing or asparagus with basil oil. But chicken livers grilled with porcini butter should have been shelved before opening night. The livers were bitter, mushy and overcooked, and the porcini butter added no flavor but an additional layer of bitterness.
Liver just isn't this kitchen's medium. The Calf's Liver Sinatra, another night, was also a bit bitter, and its onion marmalade was too mild, the pancetta too hard to chew -- a nice idea, badly executed. The entrees also include swordfish, steak, fried shrimp, sole and three veal scaloppine. I tried the sole twice and both times found that it missed -- though by an inch rather than a mile. The fish was fine, perhaps a bit too firmly cooked but cleanly fresh. The sauce, however, billed as "seasonal vegetables and whole garlic," was a cacophony of strong seasonings that drowned the fish. Veal, too, was overdosed, but with heavy breading, particularly since the veal was pounded to a stringy thinness. Its mushroom and cheese layers were fine, and the veal wound up almost superfluous. The wild rice on the side may not be very Italian, but it was a generous and interesting addition. A casserole of corkscrew noodles with sauce bolognese suffered similarly from a heavy and undistinguished sauce, as well as overcooking. Tortellini in cream another night was even more weighty.
The best of the main dishes I tried were the cold ones. Hot and Cool Pasta is a delightful summer dish, green noodles tossed while still hot with raw tomato, scallions and basil. The hot and cool contrasts make every element taste fresher and brighter. Bel Air Chicken Salad is big, tender meaty chunks, though too oily and made more so by its bed of greasy fried angel-hair pasta. The Little Italy Club Sandwich -- an open-face submarine -- is the best sub I've found in Washington after a dozen years of searching (and well it should be, at $7.95 with a pasta salad accompaniment). Its hams are pungent, its cheese high quality, its greens and marinated peppers lively, its totality a great thick juicy celebration of Italian cold cuts.
Desserts, like the rest of the menu, seem more Italian- inspired than actually Italian: ice creams with jars of homemade sauces and pears with gorgonzola-almond butter. And there is a ricotta cheesecake parfait that is not as good as any of those elements sounds; instead it is a supersweet misstep. The National Velvet Cake is dark chocolate, slightly dry and grainy but glazed with a wonderful ooze of bittersweet chocolate sauce and set in a pool of slightly whipped cream.
Dinner at the Intrigue need not be expensive. Going the full round would cost as much as $30 a person with wine, though the short wine list is reasonably priced. But there is plenty to choose among light suppers at under $10. As a full-menu restaurant the Intrigue needs work. But as a stop before or after the Kennedy Center, it is as good a choice as you can find in the neighborhood.