1801 Belmont Rd. NW. 667-1200. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 12 a.m., for brunch Saturday and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Reservations suggested.
Prices: Most dinner appetizers about $4, entrees $6 to $13. Complete dinner with wine, tax and tip about $15 to $30 per person. AE, C, MC, V.
IN THE OLD DAYS, before people ate arugula and balsamic vinegar, a restaurant called a "kitchen" (as in "Mom's Kitchen") was likely to be a roadside diner where the fried eggs were cheap and the coffee dark as ink. But our language has a way of changing with the times, and lately the word "kitchen" in a restaurant's name has taken on a certain upscale luster, conjuring up images ofNew American cooking, of young chefs doing imaginative things with fresh, native ingredients.
Which brings us to the Belmont Kitchen, a very likable, trendy little place that opened in Adams-Morgan several months ago. Judging from the brisk business it's doing, it seems to fit the local clientele like a Gucci glove. But beyond its obviously yuppie style, the Belmont Kitchen has all the fundamental requisites of a good neighborhood restaurant: the aura is inviting and informal; the staff is friendly and low-key, yet efficient; the prices are moderate; and, although most of the food isn't memorable, it's consistently good, so that repeat visits are motivated by more than just convenience or economy.
This is a restaurant of modest proportions. The 18 or so tables are divided among three small dining rooms, each pretty in a spare, understated way, with soft lighting and muted tones. Cleverly, most of the color is provided by produce -- farm baskets of onions and ripe tomatoes are lined up along a corridor,and pumpkins sit in the windows. The menu is modest, too: a half-dozen or so appetizers; salads; some unusual pizzas of the upscale variety; a dozen or so regular entrees, mainly in the new old-fashioned American style, plus a daily special or two; and some homemade desserts.
Homemade is the key word here. The meats and produce are first-class, and they're generally treated well -- the preparation is careful, there's an eye for prettiness on the plate, and the sauces are restrained so that natural flavors predominate. (Sometimes that restraint can lead to a certain blandness, particularly when the dish calls for lots of zip.)
Upside-down pizza, a house specialty available as an entree or shared appetizer, is a novel and well-conceived dish. The toppings (in this case ''bottomings") are arranged in a shallow souffl,e dish, the dough pressed over the top, and the whole thing baked in the oven. What emerges is a golden dome that looks like a miniature beef Wellington. At the table, the dish is inverted and tapped, and the pizza lands right-side-up on the plate. Having been sealed in, the toppings retain their natural moisture and flavor, and although the crust is apparently made with shortening (pizza purists from New York and Boston will be aghast), it's nicely chewy- crisp and not overoily. Of the four varieties, the best is the zippy-flavored one with sausage and shitake mushrooms. There's also a good-but-bland seafood version, and another that's unpleasantly dominated by blue cheese.
Other appetizers include a lovely ripe tomato-mozzarella- fresh basil salad and a good shrimp cocktail, the shrimp fresh-tasting and with a faint citrus flavor. There are big salad bowls for sharing, too, including a gem that combines beautiful greens and tender strips of lean, marinated flank steak. But forget the one that features chicken salad, which has all the flavor of salt-free mayonnaise.
We found the fish dishes beyond reproach here: one night a beautifully broiled trout with an appropriately mild, unobtrusive smoked oyster and bread crumb dressing, served handsomely on an elongated beige dish; another night a thick slab of broiled salmon, cooked flawlessly, topped with just a touch of good, eggy hollandaise, and arranged dramatically on a bright blue enamel platter.
Another winner of an entree, believe it or not, is chicken hash, a name that is likely to evoke bad memories of high school cafeterias and Army mess lines. Forget high school and the army and instead remember grandma, for the Belmont Kitchen's version is a homey, satisfying dish that's really a casseroled chicken pie minus the crust, with big
chunks of tender chicken, good, honest mashed potatoes and a gentle, not
overthickened gravy. The hamburger
is impressive, too, as are the Missouri-
style ribs -- lean, crusty, and served
with an excellent peppery-tart sauce
that tastes a little of cumin. The
barbecued duck, when they have it, is
even better, with succulent, flavorful
meat just touched with a sweet glaze.
Nice -- but dull -- entrees include a bland crab imperial and a thin, unimpressive steak, both overpriced; and a pork tenderloin and veal chop, unadorned and uninteresting.
When it comes to wine, avoid the carafe white, harsh-tasting and overpriced; for a dollar more, have a bottle of the very drinkable Gustave Lorentz riesling. Better still, try the awesome Altenmunster beer, marvelously creamy, clean-tasting and full-bodied.
And when it comes to dessert, don't say no. At least not to the lemon meringue pie, with a shimmery-soft custard so lemony it will pucker your mouth, a beautiful, airy cloud of sweet meringue that perfectly offsets the tartness, and a wonderfully flaky, buttery crust. A pie of pies. The chocolate ice box cake, on the other hand, tries nobly for the richest, darkest of flavors, but it misses because it goes too far -- it has the texture of a solid chocolate truffle, and there's scarcely enough sugar to bring out the character of the chocolate. There are excellent homemade ice creams, too, the best of which is the deep-flavored vanilla.
Finally, a nice touch: an eclectic selection of tapes plays in the background, in which Mozart is likely to alternate with Dinah Washington. And a not-so-nice touch: brewed decaffeinated coffee that was bitter and acidic on three out of four visits.
All in all, this is an impressive little kitchen. If it stays on target, it should be a long-lived one, too.