Like a brash young politico bubbling with idealistic notions, the recently inaugurated Joint Committee has set out "to amend the eating habits of Washingtonians." Whether or not it appeals to our palates, it has proved a handsome spot for gathering, and a friendly one at that.
The signed photos of President Reagan and Vice President Bush that grace the entrance are the only political statements in this otherwise nonpartisan-designed restaurant. The main dining room, which includes a bar, is clearly the heart of the place, with large windows that allow for lots of light and cozy little nooks for more intimate dining. There is also seating beneath umbrellas on an outdoor patio.
The menu, which resembles a congressional report, pokes gentle fun of the restaurant's neighbors on Capitol Hill. Clever food titles abound (New York strip served on a garlic loaf is called "The Finance Committee" and a salad of tortellini and chestnuts is named after the foreign affairs committee), but often those names make no sense. Why, for instance, is a sandwich of marinated chicken breast referred to as "The Interior Committee?"
Despite the menu's cutesy-ness, the kitchen is capable of turning out some pretty serious food, much of which is gussied up with trendy touches: Sun-dried tomatoes are teamed with shrimp, lime-spiked mayo adorns a plate of veal, and chicken stir fry comes with red peppers and arugula. One evening, my table was served mineral water poured from a bottle, though it wasn't offered at lunch thereafter. And a generous spirit prevails at the Joint Committee, where portions are ample and a whole stick of butter accompanies the bread basket.
With the exception of the house-made pate, a grand meat loaf of loose-textured meat and pistachios, appetizers are an unexciting parade of restaurant standards: mussels marinara, shrimp cocktail and a vegetable platter.
Soups, on the other hand, have been consistently delightful. A special of navy bean soup, brimming with beans and ham and bits of carrot, would have bested anyone's mother's version. And the terrific pork chili, served piping hot, boasted chunks of ground beef and a handful of beans. Its subtle sweetness, enhanced by a swirl of cinnamon, was balanced with piquancy so that the whole wasn't marred by cloying sweetness, a common occurrence.
There is plenty of variety -- and a range of quality -- among the main dishes. One of the best offerings was fettuccini with basil and salmon -- it boasted high quality pasta cooked to retain some bite, and chunks of salmon, pearly pink and plentiful. A basil-infused cream sauce provided a glossy touch. Less spectacular but nonetheless satisfactory were the skillet-grilled salmon and the broiled pork chops, the latter of which were underseasoned but with rosy centers. Both were accompanied by buttery, garlicky zucchini slices and little roasted potatoes.
The raspberry chicken proved a candidate for censure: The fruit sauce completely overwhelmed the chicken with its sweetness, and the poultry was mushy in texture. At lunch, a meal-sized salad of chicken chunks and new potatoes arrived with a garland of fruits that appeared to have been arranged hours earlier. But the real disappointment was the salad's flat pesto sauce.
A congenial spot it is, with attentive, outgoing staff and a monthly calendar full of special events. If the kitchen at Joint Committee were a bit more consistent, this would be more than merely a decent place to eat on the Hill.