1811 Columbia Rd. NW (at Biltmore Street)
Open: for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All major credit cards. No reservations. Separate smoking area. Not wheelchair accessible. Metro: Woodley Park-Zoo. Valet parking after 6:30 p.m. Prices: dinner appetizers $4 to $9, entrees $13 to $21; brunch buffet $22.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $65 to $75 per person.
Back when the new convention center was just a gleam in a developer's eye, chefs John Cochran and his wife, Sidra Forman, were luring diners to a remote part of Seventh Street NW with their original take on American cooking. Their minimalist philosophy was based on small portions of seasonal ingredients, bought mostly from local purveyors. Some people thought the concept was too precious (the table decoration might consist of a single green bean); others, including a bevy of Clinton staffers, flocked to Rupperts' plain dining room, where they were watched over by co-owner and sommelier Kenan Forman (Sidra's brother). However anyone felt about the restaurant, the city lost a one-of-a-kind place when the youthful trio opted to shutter Rupperts last May after eight years. Back then, Sidra Forman was the only one with any plans: She grew a business arranging flowers.
She continues in that line of work, though recently she took on another project, recrafting the menu at Perry's, the long-lived second-story restaurant in Adams Morgan best known for its rooftop dining in good weather and its drag brunches on Sunday. She got there not a minute too soon. When I dropped by for dinner before her intervention, the food was so ill-conceived, I left to have a second dinner at a place up the street. As inviting as Perry's cozy interior and handsome bar might have been, save for the sushi much of the menu tasted as if it were on life support.
That's no longer the case. Even before you see a bite of food, signs of change surface on the menu, where the type is small and the descriptions are spare, Rupperts trademarks. "Mussels with red curry sauce," the appetizer list declares. "Roasted ostrich with sweet potato" is all the written detail you get for one of the eight or so frequently changing entrees. With understatement like this, it's impossible for diners to be disappointed because of any advance hype. Tender and herb-laced, those mussels show up in a double-decker blue pot, the top of which becomes a bowl for the empty shells, with a sauce that is lightly creamy and gently tingling. Red as beef, the lean ostrich is cooked to retain some tenderness, its sweet potatoes pureed into a smooth drift.
A longtime pal of owner Saied Azali, who recruited her, Forman serves as more of a teacher than a cook here, preaching the joys of careful shopping and simple handling. "It's all about ingredients and love and care," she tells the kitchen staff, which has done an admirable job of following her lead. So pumpkin soup, scattered with a few pumpkin seeds, relies almost exclusively on the richness of the roasted vegetable for its flavor, and veal sweetbreads get their spark from a slight char and some vinegary lentils. In another quietly delicious appetizer, a cushion of phyllo supports soft leeks and butternut squash; the crisp and smooth textures in this savory tart are very appealing.
This is food that doesn't call attention to itself, but that you could happily consider eating on a regular basis. It also leans to the light. No matter the dish, there's not a lot of superfluous fat in evidence. You may not notice the absence of butter with your bread basket, which arrives instead with ramekins of minced olives and caramelized onions for spreading on the slices. Roast chicken proves meaty and juicy, and it's simply but winningly centered on a clear broth with wisps of greens and white mushrooms. Red snapper has both crisp skin and moist flesh; a few whole scarlet beets and some beet greens lend nice accents. The lone meatless entree combines velvety strips of Chinese eggplant with mushrooms, onion and tiny green lentils. It's a modest pleasure.
Half a dozen side dishes await your consideration, but some of them, including the underseasoned root vegetables and unfortunately crunchy "wilted" greens, take the simple theme so far as to be boring. The best of the lot may be the flame-singed Brussels sprouts. It's fun to see this vegetable on a restaurant menu, especially with the addition of pickled ginger to make it livelier.
Perry's used to purchase its desserts. No more. Now visitors can eat things made on the premises, including a fruit crisp abundant with thin slices of apple (and not too sweet) and a small triangle of warm gingerbread that's spunky with its namesake spice and tamed by a fluff of white chocolate mousse. (But why the pink strawberry garnish? It's winter, after all.) There's also a simple plate of white cheddar cheese and pears arranged as a still life with honey-sweetened roasted walnuts. Only the creme brulee seems out of place; its custard has the texture of scrambled eggs. A garnish of bland biscotti doesn't help.
The wine list encourages sampling: There are an impressive 25 selections by the glass, all offered at decent prices. The picks -- a chenin blanc-viognier from Napa Valley's Pine Ridge, a merlot from Australia's Hope Estate -- are thoughtful.
Reached by a steep flight of stairs, Perry's loftlike dining room is an inviting place to find yourself, particularly on a cold winter evening. Its red curtains and dark wood are balanced by low orange couches and an undulating light fixture that resembles an octopus -- a mix of serious and whimsical design details that continue with a small fireplace to one side and a bright sushi counter up front. Warmly attended to by Azali and his crew, the clientele looks as if it just stepped from an MTV audience: It runs young and current.
So does the art. See the painting of graphite balls hanging on the wall? It turns out to be the handiwork of John Cochran. Now enrolled in art school, he's exchanged knives and pots for brushes and oils, but continues, just like his wife, to make a statement on the dining scene.
Ron Sanseverino recently added the Italian dish called bagna cauda to his list of things to try. "I was thinking of surprising my wife by taking her someplace nice that serves it," writes the Arlington reader, "but I have never seen it offered." His request arrived around the same time that Galileo (1110 21st St. NW; 202-293-7191) introduced a new menu featuring the flavors of Italy's Piedmont region, which is the source of this zesty appetizer, a dip of garlic and anchovies that is served hot. Similar to fondue, the dish is presented at Galileo with edible scoops -- roasted peppers, cauliflower and Jerusalem artichokes -- for $15 at dinner.
Got a dining question? Send your thoughts, wishes and, yes, even gripes to email@example.com or to Ask Tom, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.