Judging from appearances alone, Harmony looks to be one of those wonderful neighborhood restaurants that you discover only too seldom.
Set off from the bustle of Wisconsin Avenue, in a house cum restaurant, this intimate, two-room eatery appears to be the tasty hideaway you've been searching for.
The fare is definitely upscale, though the mood is relaxed and informal. Service personnel, dressed as they are in neckties and long sleeves, appear to be 9-to-5'ers who just happen to enjoy waiting tables after hours.
Enlivening the otherwise undressed dining rooms is mellow background music -- it can vary from jazz to classical -- that doesn't interfere with conversation.
The menu refers to the experience as "the orchestration of fine food and wine," (hence the name of the restaurant) and there's no missing the point that Harmony has lavished attention on its stock of wine: There are nearly a dozen selections offered by the glass, and on the menu specific wine recommendations accompany the descriptions of both appetizers and entrees. A portion of the wall in the larger of the rooms is paneled with the sides of wine crates, a whimsical touch accentuating the restaurant's love affair with wine.
Like a number of new American restaurants in the area, this one takes advantage of seasonal offerings by changing its menu every month or so, so that there might be a filling game dish in autumn or stewed wild boar in winter. And dinner is off to a fine start with a selection of warm breads and perhaps a pot of walnut-mustard butter.
There are usually no more than half a dozen appetizers and main dishes each, but the menu offers much variety within that limit. Generally, there might be a salad, pasta and soup to start out and a selection of fish, meat and pasta to follow.
The current menu features an elegantly creamy lobster soup, a caviar sampler and steak tartare among its appetizers.
Unfortunately, three visits in as many months suggest that appearance is not everything. The same chef who turns out a lovely appetizer of smoked trout with a garnish of pleasantly smoky grilled apples offers a bowl of pumpkin soup that lacks any depth. Stuffings -- be they paired with a fine grilled veal chop or juicy roasted squab -- have repeatedly been nondescript, mushy or both. And on a recent visit, a dish of thinly shaved, rich foie gras and two-colored angel hair pasta was marred by the fact the pasta hadn't been drained properly, so that a pool of water rested on the plate.
Certainly this restaurant is capable of some good main courses -- duck in various preparations has been rather well executed, as has simply prepared fish -- but the menu as a whole can be frustratingly inconsistent.
Take the sauces, which on our visits have been consistently poor. The seasoning in a mint sauce adorning a dry poached fillet of sole was barely discernible and it tasted of having been diluted. Similarly, the brown sauce gracing a dish of venison was nondescript and heavy.
On several occasions, the accompaniments have come to the rescue of a mediocre main course, enlivening it with both color and taste. Such garnishes have included a spectacular melange of fresh vegetables, such as crisp broccoli, buttery thin carrot slices, a dollop of intense squash puree, crunchy snow peas, long thin green beans, or perhaps a pie-shaped wedge of crisp hash browns. And the chestnut puree that adorned the plate of an otherwise chalky venison stew on one visit was superb, intensely nutty and earthy.
Desserts have been consistently good. Over the last few months I've sampled Harmony's version of carrot cake (lighter and not as sweet as the traditional version), fine chocolate cheesecake, and a nut-rich pecan pie topped with freshly whipped cream. Not a clinker in the bunch.
Sadly wine and dessert are likely to be the most memorable parts of a meal.
The fact that a new American restaurant has opened where few exist is an advantage that Harmony should attempt to capitalize on. But good ideas don't necessarily translate from menu to table, and there remains discord at Harmony.