VIVANDE RISTORANTE -- Embassy Suites Hotel, 1250 23rd St. NW. 223-0747. Open: for lunch and dinner daily 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.75 to $6.50, entrees $5.95 to $14.75; dinner appetizers $4.75 to $5.95, entrees $5.95 to $$15.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $25 to $35 per person.
Hotel dining is taking a new turn with Embassy Suites Restaurants. Rather than these new hotels' running their own standard -- and often high priced -- French or Continental dining rooms, they are installing restaurants that are ethnic, casual, modestly priced and obviously run by restaurateurs rather than hoteliers.
In Tysons Corner, The Embassy Suites chain brought us the Carnegie Deli, and in downtown Washington it has introduced Vivande, the newest theme restaurant by Restaurant Associates, the New York company that runs, among its lesser accomplishments, the Kennedy Center eateries. Vivande has a twin in Baltimore's Harborplace, and while the name is being challenged by another Vivande in California, the concept is similar to that of Mezzaluna in New York.
Vivande is Italian, or sort of Italian, with fewer standard fish or meat entrees than pastas or fancy pizzas, and a special emphasis on carpaccio variations. That very fashionable raw beef, sliced paper thin, comes on a bed of radicchio and topped with thin slices of good parmesan, on a bed of arugula with a swirl of mustard sauce, or sprinkled with fleshy slices of porcini mushrooms. You can even have your carpaccio warm, which is a contradiction in terms but is quite good anyway. The meat this time is veal, barely cooked and topped with sauteed shrimp. Like several other dishes, it too, comes afloat on radicchio leaves. In fact, everything that can be garnished with greens is likely to be, and they are very elegant greens -- not only radicchio and arugula but sprays of soft green basil.
Those garnishes of fashionable greenery are one indication of the enticing character of Vivande. This is a chain restaurant, a theme restaurant, a restaurant that does what might be considered cooking by numbers -- more formula cooking than the expression of a chef grounded in basics. But it works well because the cooking is simple and therte are many imaginative and generous touches built into the concept.
As soon as you are seated, you are served freshly made bread sticks, white and whole wheat, accompanied by little scoops of garlic butter. These makings of instant garlic bread establish a sense of hospitality. On the table is a bottle of first-class dark green Italian olive oil for you to sprinkle at will. And the waiter will offer to drizzle it over your carpaccio, just as he will offer to grate fresh parmesan on your pasta or grind pepper on your entree.
The waiters sometimes overwhelm you with enthusiasm, asking perhaps too often if everything is all right, or explaining too much. But when the restaurant is busier, that flaw is bound to more than correct itself. Their spirit is certainly welcome, and they aren't afraid to steer you toward or away from a dish if you are looking for guidance.
Don't let them talk you into pasta: That group of dishes has back to the drawing board. The pasta combinations sound interesting: pappardelle with wild mushrooms and chicken; linguine with shrimp and radicchio; green penne with smoked salmon, broccoli and sun-dried tomatoes; black fettuccine with shrimp and scallops; and ravioli with pesto and tomato sauce. Each one I tried, however, was based on thick heavy pasta, with no distinguishable flavor difference between black, green and yellow noodles. They were topped not with sauces but with bits of ingredients that were good in themselves but clashed with one another -- broccoli, smoked salmon and sun-dried tomatoes was as dissonant a combination as I have tasted.
Other small, easily corrected flaws show here and there. The carpaccio was damp because its bed of radicchio had not been dried after its washing, and bowls of pasta were reheated so that some parts were cold and others steaming. (Somebody could have tossed them before serving or warned us to do so.)
Not much of great consequence goes wrong, though. These are, after all, simple preparations. Appetizers are largely salads, bright combinations of such ingredients as fresh baby artichokes with wild mushrooms, celery and parmesan, or fresh fennel with oranges. Fennel is also deliciously combined with tomato and mozzarella in a baked appetizer.
Pizzas are individual-size and come plain or topped with seafood, mixed vegetables, mixed cheeses, ground beef or the best of all, a lunchtime combination of porcini mushrooms, red and yellow peppers, chicken and goat cheese. The crusts are light and puffy, the toppings fresh and delicately seasoned with fresh herbs.
Meat and fish entrees are simple, too. There is veal parmigiana, steak with mushrooms, grilled fish and a dinner entree that steps way beyond mere formula -- cooking sauteed chicken and shrimp on a bed of spinach. The strips of chicken breast are tender and buttery, the shrimp plumped by perfect grilling, and the bed of spinach with olive oil and garlic is a brilliant catalyst. This is indeed a perfect triangle. Grilled fish, too, is excellent, either along or in an assortment of swordfish, salmon and shrimp carefully tended so that each is slightly crusty and utterly juicy.
In all, Vivande shows -- except in the pastas -- that bright fresh ingredients well matched and carefully cooked leave no one wishing for higher complexity or greater artistry.
More intricate skills are saved for dessert. A pear is poached to a rosy translucence, sliced into a fan on a thick fudge sauce etched with a lace of mascarpone cheese. A square of chocolate mousse edged with chocolate almond cake is adrift on an intense raspberry coulis. A pillow of mascarpone cream hides rum-soaked layers of cake for Vivande's version of tiramisu. And the cleverest, most delicious idea is actually the simplest production: Vanilla or cappuccino ice cream with chocolate chips and whipped cream is transformed into a heavenly ooze when the waiter pours hot espresso over it at the table.
So what if this cooking is more concept than expertise? Vivande looks good, it tastes good, it is modestly priced, and it runs smoothly.
The wine list -- which is skimpy to start -- one evening turned out to be a front for just three red wines, one of them a silly chianti in a straw-covered bottle and another a Corvo that, as it turned out, had gone bad. The manager offered the third -- a decent BV Rutherford Cabernet -- on the house. That is the kind of personal trouble-shooting that allows a chain restaurant to work as well as an individual restaurant.
What also raises Vivande above a standard chain restaurant is the attractive whimsy of the dining room, its ceiling a blue sky painted with fluffy white clouds, its walls lined with dozens of artists' renditions of della Robbia wreaths of abundance. It is a playful space. A table at the entrance displays wreaths of bread and jars of bright condiments. Carpeting mutes the sounds of the hotel's adjacent atrium and fountain, and spiky plants suggest a garden. Waiters carry brightly colored plastic pepper grinders and cheese graters, and underneath the lush servings are hand-painted Italian plates.
Vivande, above all, appetizing.