MENDOCINO GRILLE AND WINE BAR -- 2917 M ST. NW. 202-333-2912. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: lunch appetizers $6 to $11, entrees $7 to $16; dinner appetizers $7 to $13, entrees $16 to $27. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $45 to $70 per person.
It's Friday evening, and the week has seemed to stretch forever. You want to celebrate the weekend with something delicious, something more festive than burgers. You're willing to splurge but not take out a bank loan. You have in mind a handsome, civilized environment, yet with easygoing comfort. Relaxing -- that's the kind of restaurant you're seeking, though you want to make sure it's you, the diner, who is relaxed, not the waiters.
Already this is a challenge. But when you factor in that half your companions are vegetarians and the others insist on fish or meat, then take into account that all of them care about good wine, the list of options narrows.
It just got wider, though. Mendocino Grille has a new chef, Michael Chmar, whose resume includes Stephan Pyles's famed Star Canyon in Dallas, and now the cuisine measures up to this lovely fieldstone-and-wood dining room. Mendocino has had almost everything going for it; it just needed the chef who could make it complete. Chmar is deft with the chic, eclectic cooking that is called California cuisine in some Zip codes, fusion in others.
Given his background, I expected Chmar to feature chili peppers, but few are in sight. And, also flying in the face of expectations, his dinner menu includes only two red-meat entrees. He is immersed in fish and vegetables.
The first thing to consider, as the restaurant's name suggests, is the wine list. It's California-centered, of course, and most exciting at the upper reaches; for example, it includes several Turley wines, which are hard to find even in their home state. Yet while the wines under $40 are in the minority, the waiters -- who know their grapes -- are justifiably enthusiastic about even some in the $20 range.
Don't be alarmed that the bread looks far better than it tastes; just take that as a cue to avoid the soggy bruschetta and the crackery pizzas. Instead, start right in with something from the sea. Tuna tartare may be on every fashionable American menu, but it's still a delightful beginning when it's very fresh and barely seasoned, as it is here. Chmar adds a touch of sesame and wraps it in dried seaweed so it looks like a sushi roll.
Lobster spring roll in many restaurants is hardly worth a glance, but here it's a fine, crisp wrapper packed with faintly crunchy cabbage and tender lobster, aromatic with lemon grass. Shrimp come sweetly briny, wrapped in prosciutto and served on a soft, moist polenta cake. The crab cakes are vastly improved from before, transformed in Chmar's hands into large, soft pads of lump crab meat barely held together with a touch of mayo and sauteed to a crisp edge, served with a live-wire jalapeno-spiked tartar sauce. I had one once with an off flavor, but the kitchen was quick to make amends with a fresher portion. Mussels are steamed in a heady broth of garlic, red pepper and a touch of tomato; at lunch they're a winning entree combined with clams. Among seafood appetizers, only the calamari begs for revision; its tempura batter is greasy and its harissa aioli timid. The lone beef appetizer, a Thai satay, is unexpectedly chewy, but that's hardly noticeable in light of its soy-and-spice tang and its pool of fragrant peanut sauce.
Californian as this restaurant may be, its least appealing entrees are those it identifies with the Pacific Coast. "Grilled West Coast halibut" is dry and has no flavor. Its accompanying lobster-corn dumplings are chewy little dough envelopes. And "Mendocino fish stew" is a decent tomatoey lobster broth with diced vegetables and plenty of seafood, but the chunks of fish are a bit overcooked and the dish as a whole is dull.
Those dishes can't compete with the miso-cured salmon, crusty and about to burst with juices, in a haunting cream sauce flavored with coconut and ginger so subtle it takes you a moment to identify them. Or with the rockfish, cut thick and dusted with fine bits of potato and garlic, accompanied by a dollop of crab seviche and a glaze of balsamic reduction on the plate. Chmar's sauces do seem caught in a rut: This is one of several dishes served with a dark reduction -- the tuna comes with zinfandel, the rack of lamb with port and tamarind. Yet the tuna is seared just right, and the tender, generously cut chops taste lively. Chmar also proves himself with that bellwether entree, roast chicken, crisp-skinned and oozing meaty juices. Scallops are large and perfectly cooked; they easily out-shine their dry curry couscous and thickly glazed baby onions.
For the most part, Chmar pays attention to his vegetables, in side dishes of roughly mashed potatoes, still-firm baby bok choy, mushroom polenta, sugar snap peas that crunch, or maybe crisp potato wedges. His "vegetarian tower," a skyscraper of grilled portobellos, eggplant and roasted tomatoes, mingles crisp and soft textures, olive-oiled juices and grill smoke, together tasting of winter and warm fires. Another vegetarian entree, black pepper pasta with tomatoes, basil and pecorino, is faint-hearted and slightly gummy, as austere as the vegetable tower is lush.
The desserts make much of fruits. A tart of mango, kiwi, pineapple and coconut is a tropical fruit cup in a buttery, cakey crust, even lovelier for its coconut ice cream and zigzag of mango coulis. Strawberry shortcake, a tad high-fashion with its layerings of shortbread and lime-peel whipped cream, tastes altogether wonderful. There's an intense little chocolate thing with dried cherries, a classic carrot cake that gains points from a nut-brittle topping, and, in case you care about such details, a 233-calorie blackberry napoleon that tastes like a million. Like much else in the new, improved Mendocino Grille.
Honesty's the Best Policy: Miaro Bistro in Fair Oaks Mall has roots in Korea and Switzerland, so it's no wonder it calls its cooking "Traveler's Cuisine." What caught my eye, though, was not the Korean beef soup or Finnish meatloaf, but the menu's candor in offering not a "Stew of the Day" but a "Stew of the Week."
Except When It's Not: Candor won no rewards recently at Cafe Ole in Tenleytown. A group of four tried to reserve for a birthday, but the restaurant takes reservations only for parties or six or more. When a reserved-for-six party with only four people arrived and was given a table for four, the waiting foursome, miffed at having been passed over, left for another restaurant. Their suggestion: Make a reservation for six even if you're dining alone. Manager Saffron Emerson says she'd handle the situation differently if she had it to do over, but that the birthday group would have had a table within 10 minutes anyway. -- P.C.R.