SAMPLINGS -- 2317 M St. NW. 775-0777. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: $3.25 to $11.95 a plate. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $30 to $45 a person.
We are becoming a nation of nibblers. As grazing becomes the eating style of the '80s, we are reflecting a society unwilling to make commitments, even to something so unthreatening as a main dish.
Thus Samplings is the most up-to-date of restaurants, with its motto "Play With Your Food." The menu isn't organized by appetizers and main dishes, but merely by "cold" and "warm." And all the portions are called "mini-entrees" (at prices from $4 for soup to $12 for veal, it wouldn't dare call them "maxi- appetizers"). You aren't meant to construct a menu, moving in the traditional way from small to large and fish to meat. Rather, you are meant to accumulate a meal from a little of whatever strikes your fancy.
Even the wines don't require a commitment to a whole bottle. Nor even to a whole glass. You can order a mere two-ounce sampling glass (and thus taste the stratospherically priced Opus One for just $7, or experience a '79 Mouton Rothschild for $11 rather than the $110 a bottle costs here). Samplings' special feature, though, is the "flights" of wine -- two-ounce samples of three wines served in a compartmented tray with a glass of water and a sheet identifying your wines. Most of the flights cost what a glass of good wine might cost elsewhere. It is a delightful idea, the encouragement to compare three California fume' blancs or three white burgundies, and it can be carried over to dessert, with three ports or two sauternes and a late-harvest riesling.
Oddly enough, with all that flurry over wine-tasting, the food outshines the wines here. The wine list is serviceable and predictable. There are many less- touted lists in town that are more exciting. So this is not so much a connoisseur's list as a learner's list. And the prices are reasonable enough to interest the learner as well as the connoisseur.
To accompany the wines are more than two dozen menu items on a list that is expected to change every month or two, with a few daily specials. The first couple months' menu has established one signature dish, Vegetable Crumples, which are phyllo-wrapped bundles of chunky asparagus, artichokes and wild mushrooms bound in a smooth mousse. Tall and feathery-looking, the crisp bundles are set in a garlicky beurre blanc. And they taste wonderful, though somebody should offer eating instructions.
Otherwise, the grilled dishes have often been the best ones. Among the hot foods, grilled cornish game hen stuffed with a light, airy and juicy mousse of chicken and foie gras with pistachios, set on a bed of greens, was a delightful interplay of textures, and the flavors were haunting. Four of us wished we had ordered four portions. Among cold dishes, a grilled quail salad on a bed of bacon, spinach and sweet onions was smoky, tangy and delicious.
Sashimi salad was pretty -- as most of the dishes are -- and good in a simple, pristine way. With this exception, the cold dishes didn't stand up to the warm ones. There was fresh asparagus with smoked salmon -- both elements high- quality, but no surprise in that. The carpaccio was icy, paper-thin raw meat of little flavor, with too little sauce and the unwise accompaniment of raw shiitake mushrooms (they have far less taste than cooked ones). And the corn cakes were dainty but dull, three tiny, cold pancakes with a dab of cre`me fraiche and three dabs of decent but not stellar caviar. I thought the pa~te' -- a damp and spongy ballotine -- was the least good dish on the menu until I tried a chilled melon soup, grainy and so thick it could have been a sauce, with a sweet impact and then a bitter aftertaste. What a waste of fresh ginger, mint, champagne and melon. I'll take mine separately next time.
The warm dishes are a story with a happier ending. Scallops and shrimp chunks in lettuce bundles are cute, and their delicate filling is enhanced by a light and pleasant cucumber sauce. They would have been superb except that their garnish of cooked salmon roe didn't work. Those fish eggs turn unpleasantly pasty upon cooking, while they burst with flavor and juiciness when raw. The steamed mussels are plentiful and plump, their saffron broth in itself a pleasant soup. And whatever fish is in this kitchen -- usually grouper and salmon -- is likely to be cooked with great affection and topped with some powerfully colored and flavored elixir -- a bright green basil or red pepper sauce -- that sets it off well.
Meats are sliced duck breast in a too-sweet raspberry hoisin sauce, roast filet of beef that is a rosy beauty, sliced lamb in a sweet rosemary-cassis sauce, and veal flavored, fortunately, with cream and mushrooms instead of syrup. The meats are lovely to see and to taste (especially the veal, which has extraordinary flavor), but they leave the impression of staid little main courses with baby portions of vegetables -- kind of like eating beef stew at a picnic. There is also a pasta and a warm soup, but by the time you travel that far down the menu, soup seems an oddity at a grazing table and wine-tasting.
I think the menu needs some revising. Like the neutral decor -- beige walls that look like suede, with off-white, uncovered tables -- the menu doesn't take a stand. It is too neutral, and too many of the dishes are small portions of big-portion food. One day's special of morels stuffed with chicken mousse was more like what one should find in a menu of little courses, as was the quail salad, the phyllo bundles and the cornish hen.
Desserts are utterly fashionable: a sampler of three cre`me brule'es (good, but there are better within walking distance), a bland white-chocolate-ginger mousse, cheeses, amaretto souffle', Ha agen-Dazs ice cream and a plateful of delectable buttery cookies served with a bowlful of berries and accompanied by a dab of cre`me fraiche and another of lemon curd. The last is the best dessert, but at $7 it should be. Perhaps better than any of the desserts, though, are the chocolate truffles that accompany coffee.
The waiters seem excited about Samplings. They introduce it, explain it, guide you through its complications. They haven't quite learned how to handle all those wooden wine holders and the assortment of little dishes that clutter the table (and clatter on its bare surface). Still, it is extremely nice service.
And this is a restful restaurant, with well-spaced tables and quiet music ranging from classic pop to baroque to jazz. The restraint in its neutral colors and design may be at odds with its funky format, but maybe it is just right for people who can't really commit themselves to either grazing or formal dining. And the cooking is awfully good. ::