PALOMINO -- 1300 PENNSYLVANIA AVE. NW. 202-842-9800. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.; cafe open throughout the day and for light fare until midnight daily. All major credit cards. Reservations accepted. Smoking in cafe only. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.50 to $10.50, entrees $7.50 to $17.95; dinner appetizers $4.50 to $14.95, entrees $12.95 to $28.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $35 to $65 per person.
For centuries restaurants grew out of their environment -- trattorias in the hills of Tuscany, seafood boats on the rivers of Southeast Asia. Now, in this age of e-mails soaring free of geography, and foodstuffs flying to serve tables across the world, we have restaurants preparing their menus with no reference at all to the place where they happen to reside.
Palomino is just such a restaurant. It identifies itself as Mediterranean, yet it hails from Seattle. It calls itself a bistro, suggesting something cozy, but this is a $5 million extravaganza in a federal office building. Its approach from Pennsylvania Avenue has all the intimacy of Tiananmen Square.
Inside its government-issue exterior, Palomino is a frenzy of decoration and color. It shouts luxury, from the immense blown-glass light fixtures in the style of Dale Chihuly to the vast paintings that are knockoffs of Matisse. The entrance floor houses a quick-service cafe; down a winding staircase is the main dining room. There the menu is broader and the prices are a dollar or so higher, yet shirtsleeves and khakis still hold sway over jackets and ties.
This main room is a circus of handcrafts in the colors of exotic fruits. It's a space so vast you can't hear a cell phone ringing from one end to the other. It's abundant with comfortable booths, sound-muffling carpet and lighting that expresses mellow warmth yet allows you to read the menu with no strain. Everything reinforces the impression that you are going to be coddled.
The waiters are as ebullient as Disney World guides, primed to offer you every amenity and option within their power. If your reservation can't be honored instantly, the staff is ready to do anything short of building you a new table. And once you're seated, the waiters are determined to attend to your needs instantly. Sometimes their enthusiasm carries them away; they clear your table so fast, you'd better hang onto your napkin. Should you even look askance at your dish, they're likely to wipe it right off the check. They're bundles of cheerful energy.
If only they weren't so pushy. After everyone has ordered an appetizer, it's bald-faced greedy for a waiter to suggest a crab dip for the table as well, then recommend a salad along with the entrees. And with a wine list that doesn't mention vintages, even for the $140 Vosne-Romanee, I'm not moved by a waiter's plea that we try that day's special red or white by the glass. A more relaxed approach to selling would improve Palomino's image, if not its bottom line.
The Mediterranean theme kicks right in with house-baked rosemary-flecked ciabatta slices and a relish of feta, tomatoes and black olives. The menu carries through with risotto, paella, a couple of pastas and a few pizzas -- even though they're thin as paper and decidedly non-Italian. But the grills, spit-roasted meats, meatloaf and fish with berry salsa speak of the Northwest more than the Mediterranean. In fact, the restaurant seems quintessentially American, with its freewheeling combinations, boastful menu (how could asparagus in November be "hand-picked from regional farms"?) and gargantuan portions.
One lesson I learned after sampling Palomino's menu: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Likewise, if the combinations sound too bizarre to make sense, they certainly will be.
Plain old U.S.-style cooking -- that's what satisfies here. Chop chop salad is the kind of thing you'd expect in a New York steakhouse. It's a big mound of shredded lettuce tossed with diced salami, smoked turkey, provolone, tomatoes and a few chickpeas, all highly seasoned with black pepper and Parmesan, moistened with a balsamic vinegar dressing that tastes akin to Russian. It's one of those irresistible potential classics. The Caesar, on the other hand, has no character to its dressing and no crunch to its stale croutons. Follow that chop chop salad with rotisserie prime rib, its flavor boosted with applewood smoking, and you've got a winning combo. The beef isn't as juicy as it should be, and it has no crisp edges to savor, but it's tender, and leaves you with that all-American sumptuously overfed feeling.
Every day Palomino offers a list of fresh fish, and that's a window onto what works and what doesn't here. Pan-seared halibut crusted with Parmesan and Asiago is very fresh fish cut thin and pan-fried so that the crunchy golden surface seals in the juices. Its accompanying chive butter is a self-
effacing sort of beurre blanc that highlights the fish's fragile flavor. At the other end of the spectrum is striped bass with citrus marinade and berry-cilantro salsa. Oof. Is it that silly fruit hash that makes the bass seem so tired? It shares its woes with the spit-roasted duck, a decent smoke-tinged bird cooked crisp and tender, but with a raspberry sauce that makes it taste like a poultry sundae.
Among the appetizers, you're safe with mesclun tossed with sauteed wild mushrooms, Gorgonzola and walnuts. And mussels here are as flavorful as farm-raised mussels can be. They're well infused with rosemary butter and cooked just until they're plump. But beware of the heavier first courses. Potatoes Gorgonzola are a snack for, say, a football team. A mountain of heavily fried lattice-cut potato disks is plastered together with Gorgonzola and cream sauce. One disk could kill a normal appetite. As for the soups, a Moroccan chicken was so oily and randomly spiced that it was painful -- all bite and no bark.
Meat entrees include some homey options. Rigatoni bolognese is even more filling than it sounds, given that the chunks of fennel sausage and tomato are immersed in cream -- garlicky and fragrant with roasted peppers, and immoderately rich. Meatloaf might be good if it weren't reheated until it was leached of juice and taste. Spit-roasted chicken is cunningly seasoned with ground pancetta, garlic and rosemary under the skin, but so dry that the flavor hardly matters. It comes with a steak knife, and you need it. The same win-one, lose-one balance applies to the accompaniments. Palomino does a great job of steaming, grilling or roasting vegetables, but its garlic mashed potatoes are beaten until they are a sticky mess.
There's one star among the desserts here. A plate-size open-faced apple tart has a crust that's short, flaky and tender, served warm so its ice cream melts seductively into it. Bread pudding is immense and too gooey, though its sticky sweetness is appealingly balanced by pears. The tiramisu is like unfinished bittersweet chocolate frosting, and an espresso float is hardly more than a glass of cream in various states.
No matter what, though, Palomino is ready to leave you with a good impression. That's because despite its Mediterranean pretensions, it's still a Seattle chain. You can count on the coffee.