MAR DE PLATA -- 1410 14TH ST. NW. 202-234-2679. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; for dinner daily 5:30 p.m. to midnight. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate smoking area. Prices: appetizers $3.95 to $6.50; lunch entrees $9.95 to $15.95; dinner entrees $11.95 to $19.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $30 to $50 per person.
By day, 14th and P in Northwest is a scruffy corner where small groups of men hover in doorways sipping from bottles in brown paper bags. The few restaurants open tend to be immigrant start-ups on a shoestring serving nostalgia to their countrymen.
By evening, the three nearby theaters come alive and the corner becomes a crossroads of urban culture. Modern restaurants with postmodern names such as Eleventh Hour and Diversite switch on the neon and uncork the balsamic vinegar.
Mar de Plata is bridging the gentrification gap. Its Salvadoran owners, two of whom once worked at Taberna del Alabardero, decided that down-home Salvadoran food wasn't what the neighborhood craved. They constructed a largely Spanish menu, painted the upstairs and downstairs dining rooms in a sedate greige, and dressed the place up with white tablecloths and polished dark wood chairs. For decoration, they relied on the black-and-white mosaic tile floor, the open kitchen with its immense jars of olives and peppers, and a whole imported Serrano ham set on a stand ready to slice. Upstairs, they built a glass-walled private dining room to cater to small groups. They gathered a wine list from all the growing regions of Spain, skipping the cliches and emphasizing lesser-known gems, and kept the prices reasonable.
Then they opened the doors and waited for the neighborhood to discover them. In the meantime, they've worked assiduously to encourage each new diner to return. The maitre d' might offer to open whatever wine you like and charge you for only the part of the bottle you drink. The chef is likely to plead for you to let him know whatever you'd like him to cook. And when he's in the mood, he sends out a taste of something he's just prepared, which one night was a succulent little cube of potato tortilla.
This is a modest restaurant, a personal one, and while some of the entrees might make you wish you'd ordered more wisely, it's a restaurant that inspires a sense
of promise. What's more, if you fashion a meal exclusively of tapas, you're likely to believe the promise has already been fulfilled.
Consider boquerones, juicy little marinated fish that look like smelts and taste like Italian alici but better, more refreshing. Or octopus salad, its tender diced seafood buried in crunchy cucumbers, peppers and greens and showered with lemon and olive oil. Seviche is too refined, the thin slices of fish only lightly acidic and insignificantly peppered. A black clam cocktail is much more exciting, the small clams swimming in a bath of lime with minced hot chilies, onions and tomatoes; it's all a seviche could aspire to be. Then there's that Serrano ham, ready to be reduced to translucent slices, along with paprika-sharpened sopressata and manchego cheese.
So here are several irresistible tapas, and we haven't even hit the hot ones yet: The grilled sardines, rich and oily and tangy in their crackly skins, drip fragrant juices into a bed of raw greens. Yuca with chicharron, an elegant and delicate presentation of perfectly crisp fried potato-like roots with small chunks of fried pork, has not a driblet of excess grease. Fragrant red piquillo peppers are folded into triangles around minced shrimp, mushrooms and spinach. But the filling hardly matters, given the vivid flavor -- and color -- of the pepper puree that serves as sauce. Crisp-crusted ham croquettes benefit from that same puree, though they are unfortunately far more cream than ham. Mushrooms in a clay pot with a gentle wine sauce is a shy pleasure, but shrimp in garlic butter is downright inhibited. The menu also offers fried seafood, clams in marinara sauce and grilled chorizo, as well as salads and soup.
You would not feel bereft if you never made it to the entree list. Once you do, there's not much reason to order anything but meats, although the squid ink rice with seafood has that mineral tang that ink-lovers crave. What's more, the ink is strong enough to overpower any flaws in the seafood. Seafood paella, though, highlights them; indifferent shellfish and overcooking turned mine into a chewy mess. Other fish -- monkfish with lobster sauce, salmon with mushroom sauce, whole red snapper in white wine -- have tended to taste shopworn and overcooked, whereas a rib steak left too long on the fire was still moist and tender, exuding flavor. Better yet, its bed of sliced potatoes soaked up those precious juices. A greater display of the chef's abilities, though, is roast pork tenderloin rolled pinwheel-style around finely minced root vegetables; while it's a little overcooked, it's saved by a light, homey gravy and those sliced potatoes to sponge up all the nuances. The kitchen turns out other long-cooked dishes: There's a beef stew, and a shredded flank steak immersed in brown gravy with potatoes and rice. Quail is also braised, in sherry, and mounded over vegetable-studded rice.
After such rich winter fare, a dessert of pears stewed in red wine with cinnamon is appropriately light. If you're looking for something heartier, bypass the undistinguished flan in favor of the custardy and zingy rice pudding with raisins. Should you be heading for the theater, you'll probably want something less soporific, like fresh raspberries. But that eager host is a master at talking you into dressing it up with . . . a little sabayon? The chef would be glad to whisk up an order for you.
An Expanding Empire: As if P Street west of Dupont Circle weren't already the most intensely delicious two blocks in town, another restaurant is opening, probably next month, in the new Marriott between 21st and 22nd streets. Andy Shallal, who owns Skewers and the various Luna cafes and diners, is planning Mimi's, emphasizing performing arts in the decor and in pre- and post-theater menus. The chef is French Moroccan, so look for couscous as well as bouillabaisse.
A Fresh Annoyance: Cell phones have taken a lot of heat from diners annoyed by the ringing and the loud conversations. But instead of electronic complaints fading with time, I'm hearing ever more. Now it's laptops, which may seem innocuous in busy lunch-time cafes, but are found distracting in softly lit dinner places. Is this the cell-phone contingent upping the ante?
A New Height: A year ago, the $35 lobster soup at Manhattan's Lespinasse was the pricing outrage. This year, the extravagance threatening to steal its thunder is an $80 sandwich. It's at the Caviarteria, in Beverly Hills, Las Vegas and South Beach as well as New York. The recipe? One ounce of beluga, with smoked salmon, cream cheese and creme fraiche on sourdough toast.
No fries. -- P.C.R.