** (2 stars) Mark and Orlando's
2020 P St. NW (near Hopkins Street). 202-223-8463
Orlando's open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Mark's open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday 4:45 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4:45 to 10:30 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Smoking permitted at Mark's only. Not wheelchair accessible. Metro: Dupont Circle.
Prices: Orlando's lunch appetizers $6 to $10, entrees $9 to $14; Orlando's dinner appetizers $6 to $10, entrees $18 to $22;
Mark's light fare $6 to $12. Full dinner at Orlando's with wine, tax and tip about $60 per person.
There are restaurants we go to when we're wearing jeans and want something easy -- say, a salad and a beer -- and restaurants we visit when we're a bit more dressed up and want something festive -- maybe fish tartare and a nice glass of wine.
Mark and Orlando's lets us have it both ways and under one roof. Named for two longtime friends in the local restaurant business, Mark Medley and Orlando Hitzig, this newcomer to Dupont Circle offers two menus on two floors. Some like it haute, and for them there's the first-floor Orlando's, cool with marble floors and a contemporary American menu that changes seemingly every day. Upstairs sits the more casual Mark's, which serves a much simpler menu of salads and sandwiches.
The format allows the two restaurateurs to play to their strengths. Medley taps into his time at Washington restaurants Pesce and Vidalia, where he worked as a waiter and developed an interest in wine, to play host, while Hitzig, previously a chef at the former Blue Point Grill in Alexandria and 701 in the District, concentrates on things culinary.
For serious diners, Orlando's is the more interesting of the two options, and it makes a style statement right from the start, with an assortment of four spreads for its bread basket. There's butter, naturally, but it might be joined by garlic butter, gingery sweet potato puree, mashed eggplant sweetened with raisins or other riffs. The choices are interesting, if not always delicious (beet puree was a bust), and they signal a kitchen willing to reconsider the routine.
For Hitzig's Caesar salad, spears of romaine are splashed with vinaigrette and singed on the grill, then presented atop croutons, with puddles of dressing and pinches of grated Parmesan on the plate. It's a do-it-yourself kind of salad, novel and delicious. Tomato soup is another war horse that takes on a new look. Rich with cream, its flavor is deepened with beer, and the soup gets a dash more color from some chive oil on the surface. In another tomato appetizer, the tomato is stuffed with creme fraiche and roasted garlic, and dressed with a fruity vinaigrette. It tastes like a work in progress, because the tomato is not ripe and its peach and ancho dressing is more sweet than heat. But the kitchen gets back on track with a martini glass brimming with dewy raw salmon, bright with lemon zest and fresh dill, and set on creme fraiche. There's an ocean of raw fish dishes out there. This one swims near the top.
Most of Hitzig's dishes are as fresh and straightforward as his small, first-floor dining room, which is simply decorated with some maps and copper cooking utensils. Scallops, silky roasted peppers and an enticing, vanilla-scented vinaigrette make up a fetching seafood salad. The vanilla is unexpected yet pleasant, like running into an old college pal on the street. And poached chilled salmon gets a gentle lift from lemon and a literal lift from a raft of thin asparagus spears. A light entree, it was balm on a day when the outside air rivaled that of a sauna. Crab cakes, tall and perfectly nice, rise from a base of firm little beans and crisp bits of bacon.
I adore sardines and mangoes, but not the combination of the two, at least as I sampled them here, where a trio of bony fish framed a mushy, too-sweet salad of diced mango and avocado. And the tomatillo soup, set off by matchsticks of tortilla and a dab of lime-flavored creme fraiche, is better suited to a shot glass or a demitasse than the big bowl served here; its tanginess grew tiresome a few slurps in. Not all of the kitchen's ideas work.
But more of them do than don't, and even the gutsier dishes have a pleasing lightness to them. A thin lamb steak, simply topped with chopped tomatoes and paired with sauteed spinach, bursts with flavor. So does tender rack of pork, stuffed with a combination of apples, blue cheese and pancetta -- the flavors duke it out quite nicely on the tongue -- and lapped with a subtle rosemary sauce.
Mark and Orlando's encourages you to drink wine with your meal. Medley has assembled a nicely edited collection of labels that underscores both quality and value; the subtly smoky MacMurray Ranch pinot noir sells for a user-friendly $25 per bottle, for instance, and a prestigious chardonnay, from Sanford in Santa Barbara, can be enjoyed for $40. Don't care to commit to a full bottle? There are a dozen choices by the glass, averaging less than $7. Good sips, fair prices -- there's a bandwagon I'd like to see more restaurants hop on.
The kitchen seems to lose a bit of steam by meal's end. Hitzig's chocolate cake with a warm liquid center is very appealing, but that recipe has become the Tom Cruise of desserts: totally, rampantly overexposed. And one day's peach tarte Tatin brought the disappointments of fruit that would have benefited from caramelizing and pastry that was soggy. The chef's ice creams, on the other hand, are experiments in risk-taking that work. Curry and basil ice creams go down nicely in part because Hitzig uses those forceful flavors with restraint, providing a suggestion of heat and herb rather than a roar.
Mark's? The second-floor space looks like a rec room with some flair (picture parquet floors and a plasma screen), and serves food that seems designed not to interfere with the game on TV or a catch-up session over drinks with buddies. Look for a respectably juicy hamburger, a cheese plate, chicken wings and a few items from downstairs, like the grilled Caesar salad and smoked fish plate.
Chances are, when Hitzig isn't making your lunch or dinner, the chef is bringing the completed dishes to your table. Goodwill ambassadors, he and Medley like to chat up their audience, many of whom appear to be friends and neighbors. And the owners have hired people who are similar in personality, laid-back and amiable, to help watch over the dining room.
If you're looking for a successful merger, this is it. From bottom to top, Mark and Orlando's is a pleaser.
To chat with Tom Sietsema online, click on Live Online at www.washingtonpost.com, Wednesdays at 11 a.m.
Steve Engel and his wife recently used a $100 gift certificate at a local restaurant and ended up spending only $85. "We thought, perfect, we can leave the balance as our tip," the Washington reader wrote to me in an e-mail. However, he met resistance, first from his waiter, who said the balance could be transferred to another gift certificate, and then from a manager, who told him, "The patron should leave the tip." Engel was mystified. "A gift certificate is not the same as a coupon," he reasoned, "and should be treated the same as cash." The manager eventually relented, but, Engel wrote, "This incident left a bad taste in my mouth for that restaurant and for the concept of giving restaurant gift certificates as presents." Since the unnamed restaurant got the money upfront, I'm in the diner's camp on this matter: The balance was his to disburse as he wished.
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