TRAGARA -- 4935 Cordell Ave., Bethesda. 951-4935. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate non- smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $3 to $3.95, entrees $7 to $10; dinner appetizers $4.95 to $8.95, entrees $13.95 to $19.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $37 to $56 per person.
You can pick up a few clues about Tragara, Tiberio's snazzy new Bethesda outpost, simply by standing outside and watching what drives up. A typical evening brings an automotive parade so opulent you may wonder if you haven't somehow stumbled onto Rodeo Drive by mistake. Amid the Mercedes convertibles with the personalized tags, the Rolls-Royces and the Jags, one almost feels sorry for the Caddie Coupes de Villes, as unnoticed as flower girls at a star's wedding.
The cars provide a fair preview of the restaurant. Inside, the main dining room is eclectic plush, designed to the teeth with a style that combines art deco curves, old paintings in ornate frames, high-tech track lights suspended over tables and an "open" kitchen with an odd red glass window (it's like looking at the chef through rose-colored glasses). Even the anteroom is a knockout, with its gorgeous gray marble floor and curving staircase. (There's more marble in the state-of-the-art restrooms, which have some automatic plumbing features that shouldn't be missed.)
Nothing at Tragara has been left to chance -- notice how the rosy pink linens are demurely set off by pink roses. The lighting is bright yet warm and soft-edged, and the acoustics are excellent -- a blessing in a place as close-tabled as this one. However, this dining room is big and usually packed, so intimacy isn't its strong suit. But it's just right for seeing and being seen (the crowd, as you might have guessed, is impeccably dressed, coiffed and tanned), and for spotting the occasional local celeb at a nearby table.
Although Tragara is an expensive restaurant, it's noticeably less so than downtown's Tiberio. (The conventional wisdom in the restaurant business is that suburbanites either can't manage stratospheric prices or are constitutionally too sensible to pay them.) The food is priced so that appetizers, desserts and ancillary items are comparative bargains, while pastas and entrees are decidedly steep. (The spaghettini with tomato sauce at $13.95 is always good for a chuckle.) The wine list is long and mainly Italian, its prices relatively modest. The service seems to be afflicted with a certain inconsistency. On two visits our waiter was quick, attentive and courteous, but on a third outing we landed one whose disposition was sour enough to curdle milk.
For all the ruffles and flourishes in the dining room, the menu is simple, relatively short and largely confined to standard Italian restaurant fare. Don't expect a lot of risk-taking or innovation from this kitchen. On the other hand, the ingredients are clearly top-notch, and most of the dishes are prepared and presented with considerable skill.
A few tips: Tragara's appetizers and pastas generally have been impeccable, as have the shellfish and beef. Surprisingly, the veal has been ordinary -- the chop thin and overcooked, the scaloppine a bit dry. You won't go wrong with the various tomato sauce permutations; they're all bright, chunky and fresh-tasting, their flavors underlined by good olive oil. But be cautious about the cream and butter-based sauces, which tend to be over-rich and over- applied. Beyond these basic guidelines, there are inconsistencies here from day to day. A chicken breast dish was remarkably succulent one time, dryish another. On one visit the insalata mista was a gorgeous platter of radicchio, arugula and Boston lettuce; on the Night of the Dour Waiter, it was just a small plate of romaine.
The shellfish appetizers are outstanding: the lovely pot of mussels or the delicate cold seafood salad with just a glisten of olive oil or, best of all, the hot, plump oysters topped with a bit of spinach and cheese. The warm sweet peppers are another delight, as is the light and creamy fried mozzarella. (Frying is done well here across the board -- look for the fine fried calamari entree and the admirably delicate fried zucchini side dish.) Compared with the appetizers, the soups are pleasant but dull -- plain Janes in fancy company.
Except for the pesto sauce, which we found remarkably watery and under- flavored, the pastas have all been first class. Especially noteworthy are linguine "mare nostrum," with its exquisite seafood mixture, and the pennette sorrentina, in which strips of eggplant soak up the gentle flavors of fresh tomato and olive oil. Capellini, difficult to serve without the pasta matting together, is done beautifully here, with a simple, fresh-tasting tomato sauce.
Tragara does fish reasonably well, too. The delicate salmon is topped with fresh tomato and basil (and too much butter), the snapper with a more robust tomato- parsley-caper-onion mixture. Both combinations click. The trout, on the other hand, has been overcooked and hopelessly buried under a thick lemon- butter sauce. The shrimp are exemplary, but sidestep the ones in the heavy, cheesy "wine sauce."
The beef here is first-rate; a good way to have it is in the exceptionally succulent and flavorful tenderloin with prosciutto and green peppercorns. The lamb chops are fine, too, nicely pink and juicy. There are two chicken breast dishes, both excellent. Pollo alla romana is served with beautiful mushrooms, chunks of green pepper and olives in a lovely tomato-olive oil sauce. Even more interesting is the pollo "ducale," piled high with strips of mushroom and fresh artichoke and topped with just a touch of a silky, buttery sauce. The osso buco is pleasant enough, a nice, generous veal shank, and it's always a treat to scoop out that unctuous marrow from the bone, but we found the joy dulled by a blatant, very salty sauce.
Desserts, made on the premises, are worth considering. The various cakes are buttery and intensely flavored, the exceptionally good tiramasu has cheese you can really taste, and the tarts -- made with a shortcake crust rather than puff pastry -- have some real teeth to them.
If you stick to what Tragara does best, it's bound to impress you -- this is a slick, suave restaurant where they know all the right moves. But its kitchen is working from a fairly narrow palette. Eating here is a little like shopping at Brooks Brothers: quality merchandise, no surprises. ::
Mark and Gail Barnett are free-lance restaurant critics. Phyllis C. Richman is on assignment.