713 H St. NW. 202-289-4441
Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, and noon to 11 p.m. Saturday. AE, MC, V. Smoking in the bar on the first floor. Metro stop: Chinatown/Gallery Place. Street parking. Prices: appetizers $7 to $10, pizzas $11 to $18, entrees $14 to $23. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $45 per person.
2029 P St. NW. 202-872-1180
Open: for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 6 to 9 p.m. AE, MC, V. No smoking. Metro: Dupont Circle. Street parking. Prices: five-course dinner $60 per person Tuesday through Thursday, $65 per person Friday and Saturday. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $100 per person.
1990 M St. NW. 202-659-1990
Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Smoking at the bar. Metro: Dupont Circle. Valet parking. Prices: dinner appetizers $10 to $17, entrees $25 to $36. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $95 per person.
FIFTY-ONE ISSUES A YEAR of the Sunday Magazine add up to lots of food for thought, but it's mostly about new restaurants or places that have seen great changes, such as a new chef or a fresh location. That's why, beginning today, the Dining column will take an occasional look at previously reviewed restaurants to bring you up to date on how they rate now. Here's my take on a trio of Washington establishments you haven't seen lately in these pages but might want to reacquaint yourself with:
The wood-burning brick oven in the rear of Matchbox is your clue for what to order at this three-story Chinatown magnet: pizza, natch. The restaurant's owners looked to some of New York's venerable pizza-
makers for inspiration, and it shows here, on blistered and smoke-perfumed crusts scattered with tasty toppings (I'll take spicy meatball or prosciutto with olives and ricotta cheese, please). The indecisive are in luck: Just ask, and the kitchen will decorate a pie half and half.
But Matchbox -- which starts as a narrow bar with tall tables hugging a brick wall and eventually climbs to a booth-lined dining room upstairs -- is more than just a pizza joint. Salads are better than you expect; I'm partial to the hillock of greens and roasted peppers tossed with rings of fried squid and balsamic vinegar, the aptly billed "sweet and tangy" calamari salad. And if some of the fare is a bit heavy-handed, such as the baseball-size crab cake bound in ribbons of phyllo and doused with remoulade, it's also pretty satisfying. Other dishes evoke American home cooking. Chicken pebbled with chopped pecans and set on a mound of whipped sweet potatoes, everything ringed in a gravy colored with finely diced carrot, adds up to a delicious rib-sticker. And the pizza gets heavy competition from another signature, a plate of baby hamburgers crowned with lacy onion rings and offered on toasted brioche. (Bet you can't stop at just one.)
All that good food at reasonable prices can mean a wait for one of the 75 seats at prime time. Matchbox hopes to remedy that situation: The restaurant is doubling its capacity by expanding next door, a project its owners hope to complete by the end of January.
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THE TAB HAS GONE UP at Obelisk, but so has the amount of food on the fixed-price menu. Under the eye of owner Peter Pastan, the veteran Italian retreat is again one of Washington's top performers after a season or so of merely good showings. Its muse has expanded the menu so that dinner now begins with a flurry of mouth-watering antipasti -- picture a thin slice of cured pork fat (lardo) and tomato confit on bruschetta, shaved smoked duck breast, a pillow of soft white cheese (burrata) laced with extraordinary Tuscan olive oil -- before moving on to four other courses. Bring an appetite and loosen your belt.
There's not a more exciting place within the city limits to tuck into an Italian repast. Should anyone need proof, I can simply point to hand-cut noodles tossed with chanterelles and pancetta; the most extraordinary bluefin tuna served on a cushion of velvety roasted peppers (the fish cuts like warm butter); and a blissful pudding laced with dessert wine -- among other heady memories from my most recent outing here. The cheese course offers a model of restraint and good taste; the wine list is a little dream; and button-size sweets show up with your espresso.
Italian cooking is all about finding the best ingredients and then not playing with them too much. Obelisk excels at that. Pappa al pomodoro is just a fancy way to spell out tomato-and-bread soup, yet that humble dish soars to new heights in this kitchen, where chef Jerry Corso has been hitting one home run after another since arriving in April. (Actually, he's returning to Obelisk, having spent two years there ending in 1997.)
The narrow room is designed so as not to detract from the cooking. In other words, it's still spare, decorated with not much more than a band of mirrors at eye level and a few prints. I appreciate the gentle lighting, but not the acoustics: One loud table can invade everyone else's zone of privacy. But the space allows diners to stretch out a bit more than before, thanks to the removal of a half-dozen seats. No more knocking over your neighbor's wand-size bread sticks when you sit or stand.
At Obelisk, my biggest regret is a menu that changes between visits, meaning something I long to eat again might not be around on my return. Of course, that's the thrill of a meal here, too: Just imagine what new dishes Pastan and Corso will have dreamed up by the time you get back!
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FOLLOWING A $1 MILLION MAKEOVER in 2003 that helped diners forget they're eating underground, Vidalia took on a new chef last year, R.J. Cooper, after longtime employee Peter Smith left the West End kitchen to begin opening a place of his own. Regulars can still count on finding shrimp and grits and lemon chess pie on the menu, but those Southern staples have been joined by a posse of innovations that demonstrate Cooper's range while retaining the owners' vision. (Jeffrey and Sallie Buben also own Bistro Bis on the Hill.)
If you haven't been to Vidalia in a while, you owe yourself a look-see. It still serves a good crab cake, but so do a lot of places. Better to launch with sushi-grade yellowtail, cut into rectangles, lightly dusted with crushed pumpkin seeds and placed atop two little salads of diced squash, apple and almond. One mound glistens with a scooplet of ginger-olive oil sorbet, the other is draped with a frothy curry sabayon dotted with caviar. Both are scrumptious. In another memorable first course, local oysters are showcased in a bowl that also finds room for country ham, swiss chard, soft artichokes and a splash of sparkling wine. It would be easy to polish off the excellent cornbread, brioche and focaccia tucked in your bread basket, but resist the urge: There's a lot more good food to follow.
It's tempting to order the entrees for their plate mates: Swiss chard, buttery carrot puree and candied pecans practically steal the show from sweetbread-stuffed, cornmeal-dusted rabbit. And much as I appreciate Cooper's carefully cooked slab of wild rockfish, the dish's melting onions, black trumpet mushrooms and fingerling potatoes demand equal time from my fork. Risotto serves as a luxe platform for crisp haricot verts, soft cubes of squash and mellow chestnuts. Slips -- cod cooked a moment too long, smothered greens that need more tang -- are infrequent.
Tap the expertise of sommelier Doug Mohr, who has assembled a great collection of wines from around the globe, and you'll drink as well as you eat; his commentary brings the wine to life. One of the best happy hours around unfolds in the bar weekdays, from 5 to 7 p.m., when 20 wines by the glass are available for $3.50 to $7; the deal -- "20 Under 7 Before 7" -- includes pate, deviled eggs and other nibbles.
Vidalia's guiding light -- the South -- is underscored in gracious service, side dishes that run to succotash and macaroni and cheese, and sweet (but not too sweet) endings. Pastry chef Naomi Gallego makes a fetching chocolate-caramel tart, which she lightens with banana "salsa" and a drizzle of lime syrup, and her warm gingerbread is sheer comfort on a cold day. There's more: With the bill comes a blizzard of petit fours that taste every bit as divine as they look. A dozen years after it set sail, Vidalia manages the neat trick of looking, and tasting, as fresh and exciting as ever.
To chat with Tom Sietsema online, click on Live Online at www.washingtonpost.com, Wednesdays at 11 a.m.
Ask Tom will return next week.