CITIES -- 2424 18th St. NW. 328-7194. Open: for dinner only Sunday through Thursday 6 to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 p.m. to midnight. AE, Choice, DC, MC, V. No reservations accepted. No separate non-smoking section. Valet parking, $3. Prices: appetizers $2.95 to $5.95, sandwiches, main-course salads and pizzas $6.95 to $11.95, entrees $8.25 to $14.95. Full meal with wine, tax and tip about $35 per person.
he opening of Cities has made ours more of one.
It is a stunningly urban restaurant, a conversion of the old Ben Franklin five-and-dime into part bar, part disco, part restaurant. When it comes to '80s-style dining, Cities leaps beyond even City Cafe, Primi Piatti and Dakota.
Cities starts with a bar, which opens to the street like a boardwalk arcade. In a flash, the bar stools and tiny tables are aswarm with a crowd so dashingly dressed you wonder whether they, too, were an invention of the interior designer. A corridor on the left leads to the restaurant itself, which looks a little tamer than the bar, but not by much.
Postmodern's pastel era must be over. Cities' style is Designer Blight, with handcrafted scars on the walls, faux barbed wire outlining the hallway. The walls are gray, mottled columns rise from carpet that looks like a trompe l'oeil aftermath of a terrorist bombing, and on the tables there are not really flowers but a couple of, well, weeds.
Sounds awful. Looks wonderful. Cities is a great romping joke of a design. Even the waiters wear gray striped shirts and floppy gray trousers, which, if you squint, look like prison uniforms a` la Yves Saint Laurent.
No matter how much you squinted, though, you couldn't imagine this as prison food. Cities' kitchen still has some shaking down to do, but even in these early days it is producing very polished cooking. The menu is eccentric and not as long as it at first appears. It offers plenty of categories -- sandwiches, salads, pastas, pizzas, entrees and a page of specials from a different country every few months (Brazil the first time around), as well as appetizers and desserts. But there are only a couple of choices in most of the categories and usually two daily specials. (Among problems to iron out: Asked what the "carne of the day" was, a waiter replied, "Lobster." And after ordering double-fried red bliss potatoes as an appetizer, we found the same potatoes accompanying our main dish.)
There are two Brazilian offerings not to be missed: the potent lime-spiked drink called caipirinha and the lemon chicken with sweet bananas. Unlike the regular menu's grilled chicken breast, which is topped with an overwhelming and oversweet honeyed barbecue sauce, this beautifully grilled fowl is heightened by its sweet-tart glossy sauce. The black bean soup, and the black beans and rice that accompany the Brazilian entrees, are also a delicious, careful balance of seasonings.
If you're too late for the Brazilian dishes (they're slated to change at the end of October), you won't miss much if you carefully pick your way through the standing menu.
Among appetizers my only disappointments have been with those double-fried potatoes and the roasted red pepper with grilled corn soup. The former are pedestrian, just slightly dry quarters of fried new potatoes with a sour-cream sauce no more exciting than russian dressing. The soup is a glorious sunset red, with nice contrast in the smoky corn niblets, but it is mildly boring. Much more tantalizing is peanut, coconut milk and coriander soup, rather sweet and creamy, slightly biting, with a teasing, almost haunting taste. On the adventurous side is grilled chorizo -- the hottest I have tasted -- with a tangy corn relish to quench its fire. On the milder side are plump mussels with a faint mustard vinaigrette and capers, and shiitake mushrooms oozing garlic butter with a dollop of sour cream and fronds of chive.
As for main dishes, I'd give strongest consideration to the daily specials. On each of my visits they have been the stars. One day it was juicy veal medallions with a delicate cream of gorgonzola and a sharper contrast of sliced prosciutto and fresh figs. Another day it was lamb chops on couscous that played on your tongue with savory and sweet seasonings. And fish has been exceptional, whether meltingly tender swordfish with hints of herbs and pimento, or crusty, velvety sturgeon. Even the Brazilian red snapper, which I faulted for its too-sweet garnish of packaged coconut and lime, was flawless in its freshness and its cooking.
Then there are those ubiquitous "new American" entrees, hauts pizzas and pastas. Cities' pizzas have a wonderful thin crust, puffed with air bubbles, chewy and crackling. And they are topped with interesting combinations -- gorgonzola and minced prosciutto, white cheese with red peppers and arugula, or my favorite (because it takes off from conventional pizza expectations): tomato, pepperoni, smoked mozzarella and grilled eggplant. They are all good and, at $8.25 to $8.50 each, much cheaper than the celebrated pizzas at Windows.
Pastas are just as reasonably priced -- less than $9 each -- but are less clear-cut winners. Tortellini with chevre and wild mushrooms was pleasant but not distinctive, while a pasta salad of penne, fresh salmon, cucumber, tiny red and green tomatoes and lemon-thyme vinaigrette was perhaps the most elegant and delicious pasta salad I have tasted. Other salads, too, are pleasant combinations, particularly the familiar tomato-mozzarella-basil with a hail of pine nuts and grilled shrimp refreshed by the pepperiness of watercress and the sweetness of papaya.
There is one mystery on the menu: a sandwich of blackened steak with red onions and muenster was a mistake from start to finish. The steak -- thin slices of good meat -- was gray and pink rather than blackened, the red onions were radicchio, the roll was heavy and bready and the whole was a bland mess. It had sounded so good.
Dessert retrieved it, or at least some of the desserts did. Steamed chocolate cake swathed in whipped cream is a lovely concoction, both dense in flavor and light in texture. Fruit tarts are superb, their crust light and fragile, their topping a proper custard with fresh fruit and berries. And cre`me brule'e is excellent, the custard rich and smooth, the topping a well-browned crunch of sugar. On the down side, lime curd mousse and house-made ice creams and sorbets have lacked the intensity of flavor they deserve, and the big gooey sundaes have much to recommend them, but not much after a full dinner.
While Cities has some fine, experienced waiters and others whose enthusiasm is likely to carry them until they are more experienced, its dining room needs more organization. Architectural chaos is fun; managerial chaos is another matter. One evening, three waiters in succession came to take our order, and the one we gave it to forgot one of the appetizers. Another day we had a superb waiter, but he and every other staff member disappeared from the floor for long periods so that it took 10 or 15 minutes to even find somebody to ask for our bill. It was astonishing to see a full dining room devoid of all staff for such a long time.
Cities is the offspring of Cafe Med, which has closed -- perhaps permanently. Cafe Med is a high price to pay for Cities, for its food was wonderful, its service was pleasant, and its prices were modest for such elegant cooking. Cities has the space and style Cafe Med should have had, and its cooking bears a strong family resemblance. Considering how long it took Cafe Med to get off the ground, Cities may even surpass it. ::