** (2 Stars) Merkado Kitchen
1443 P St. NW (near 14th Street). 202-299-0018 www.merkadodc.com
Open: for dinner daily 5 to 10 p.m. or later;
for brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted only for parties of five or more; no reservations Friday and Saturday after 7 p.m. Smoking in bar area only. Metro: Shaw. Prices: brunch appetizers $5.25 to $10.75, entrees $9.25 to $19; dinner appetizers $5.25 to $11.50, entrees $14 to $23. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50 per person.
A couple of admissions before I start dishing:
One, I'm not a big fan of fusion cooking. More often than not, its practitioners use the term -- which refers to a merger of the flavors and techniques of two or more cuisines -- when they don't have a firm grasp of what they're doing. It's hard enough for a chef to master one style, let alone create a harmonious menu out of several. Many have tried. Few have succeeded.
Two, I can't recall a meal at Grillfish or Logan Tavern that made me eager to return to either one. I raise their names because both Washington restaurants are owned by David Winer, who recently opened Merkado Kitchen on the same popular block as Logan Tavern (and across the street from a Whole Foods grocery store, near the Studio Theatre. "I'd rather compete with myself," is how he explains his decision to run two similar businesses so near each other. The name of his third restaurant, which seasons Latin fare with Asian accents, is a play on the Spanish word for market (mercado).
Does everything sing? Everything does not. But plenty surpassed my expectations. Winer seems to be taking Merkado Kitchen more seriously than his earlier ventures, hiring a chef with a respectable resume and creating an environment that is easy on the eyes, if not the ears. Edward Kim was lured away from Soigne in Baltimore, bringing to Merkado a feel for Mediterranean-Asian cooking and experience at such noteworthy Manhattan restaurants as Oceana, Picholine and Vong. Meanwhile, Winer has outfitted the interior of the new restaurant with soothing colors, a kitchen visible behind glass, and outsized paintings of faces -- faces that resemble the very clientele, of theater-goers and gym rats, seniors and multi-hued families, that tends to flock here.
The cheerleaders at FedEx Field have nothing on the servers at Merkado, who enthusiastically welcome diners, explain food descriptions ("Xuxu" slaw begs for a translation) and seem to want everyone to feel like a party guest. "And if you're a vegetarian," one particularly upbeat waiter exulted, summing up his minute-long introduction to fusion cooking, "we can do that, too!" (My vote for best meatless dish goes to the chile relleno sealed in tempura and stuffed with molten goat cheese, beans and jalapenos.)
You're in luck if you like seafood, which makes up much of the menu. A trio of shrimp sport light tempura jackets and pink stripes of Thai chili paste mixed with mayonnaise, a presentation rounded out with a little nest of sesame-oil-splashed seaweed. More restrained are raw scallops, sliced into thick ivory coins, sprinkled with sea salt and anointed with a citrus-laced vinaigrette, for a simple, clean effect. Squid is wrapped around shredded crab, then grilled and served with a sauce of coconut milk and orange juice whose sweetness is tempered by diced tomatoes and more of that pink mayonnaise sauce. I was less enamored of the whole rockfish, which is not flattered by its sour vinaigrette. The fish had also sat a precious moment too long on the grill.
You can't fault Merkado's food for being boring. Salmon glides to the table with a sweet miso-based reduction and a bed of "risotto" made with sushi rice and shrimp; it won't please risotto purists -- one bite of the rice is creamy, another is dry and chewy -- but the overall flavor is fine. Succulent skirt steak "Nuevo Latino" is fanned out on its plate, scattered with diced peppers and offered with fried plantains and that Xuxu slaw, a cool and refreshing salad of julienned jicama, apple, carrot and chayote. The kitchen also makes a "Puerto Rican paella" that bears little resemblance to the Spanish classic. Part casserole and part stew, the strapping (and satisfying) entree packs in decent mussels and scallops and better shrimp and braised pork, along with rice and white beans in a seafood broth. In all, this is hearty fare, served with some flair.
Brunch is available not only on Sunday but (hurrah!) Saturday as well. The meal begins with some fire, in the form of jalapeno-veined cornbread, fine and moist. Fan the flames by ordering a bloody Mary; rimmed with cumin and infused with cilantro and minced jalapeno, the drink sears the palate as it goes down. Pancakes scattered with toasted coconut are decent, but they're also topped with whipped cream that tastes as if it came from an aerosol can. Eggs Benedict is tagged "Cuban," thanks to the addition of chorizo as well as spinach. It's okay. A thin seafood cake made crunchy with Japanese bread crumbs gets lost between a giant bun and a flurry of accessories. The best parts of brunch are the sidekicks: rum-tickled fruit and roasted potatoes made luscious with onion, cumin and ribbons of red bell pepper. Probably the best way to finish any meal here, if you have room to spare, is with an order of crackling spring rolls, filled with banana and dressed up with caramel sauce and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
The cocktails are true to the spirit of the menu. So there are allspice and mango in your daiquiri and a Korean twist to your mojito: The rum-and-mint blend uses soju, a clear alcohol made from sweet potatoes. I made only a small dent in the offerings -- there are 16 specialty cocktails in total (and I have but one liver) -- but two that pack a first-class punch are the "Spiced Rumtini," zingy with ginger, and clear, cool sake infused with peach.
The wine list could use some pruning, but it has several charms. It highlights fruity whites and light reds that complement the spicy stuff on the menu. The selections by the glass include glass "& a half" options for just a bit more per pour. Nice touch.
Merkado Kitchen is not where you want to take an aging parent or a soft speaker. When the place is busy, as it has been every night I've dropped by, the noise approaches that of a rock club. But keep in mind that this is Logan Circle, vibrant and forward-thinking. Even with its lapses, the new kid on the block fits right in.
A self-described slow eater, Philip Laten of Silver Spring sympathizes with the reader who recently complained about entrees arriving on the heels of appetizers. Typically, Laten writes in an e-mail, he tells servers not to bring out a second course before he's finished with the first. One of the few times he didn't make that request, Laten says, "we had two bites of our salad and out comes our main course," so he sent back the entree. "The server was rude and I asked for the manager," who gave him a different waiter. Laten appreciated the change in attitude: "I left a 25 percent tip," he says, "and told the new server to let the other one know" what she would have received if she'd done her job right. Servers, take note.
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