The pathway to chefdom has often been a forked road that converges in the professional kitchen. Some take the route that winds through culinary school, where a student learns the fundamentals, many of which are not obvious to neophytes spoon-fed the notion of instant celebrity via reality television. Others follow a trail blazed by the likes of Thomas Keller and Tom Colicchio, who learned by osmosis, an on-the-job education.
Erin Lingle's path came from a whole different direction: It started among the steep limestone cliffs of Spain.
Lingle is co-owner of Mola, an intimate Spanish-themed restaurant carved out of the old Radius Pizza space in Mount Pleasant. Over the years, Lingle's annual rock-climbing trips to Spain have assumed a secondary purpose: to research the Moorish spices and seafood-heavy dishes of southern Spain. She has been loath to assume the title of "chef," even though she performs the same tasks of those who do: She develops menus, places orders and oversees the kitchen during service, among other duties. Her crew calls her "Chef Jefa," a Spanglish title that underlines Lingle's importance: She's the "boss" twice over.
"I consider her the heart and soul of the kitchen," says co-owner Karlos Leopold.
For Lingle, Mola is a labor of love, as well as a love of place, the kind of restaurant increasingly rare among the proliferating fast-casuals and hospitality groups with their latest "concept." In spirit, if not in ambition, Mola is more a venta, a mom-and-pop restaurant in rural Andalusia, than a chef-driven tapas house in Seville. It's more a family heirloom jewel than a rare gemstone, though it is one with imperfections.
This is not to imply that the 45-seat restaurant deals only in simple, homestyle plates. When she conceived the menu for Mola's June debut, Lingle worked with Cagla Onal-Urel, the former Etto chef, who's a master at marrying rusticity with refinement. The most mouthwatering preparations at Mola do much the same, like the elegant pileup of couscous, saffron-roasted cauliflower, raisins and pine nuts lounging in a buttermilk dressing, or the composed plate of butterflied, pan-roasted sardines, whose oily flesh is enhanced and counterbalanced by a paprika vinaigrette and preserved lemons.
Some of the most satisfying bites at Mola come from unlikely sources. Looking like something died atop two pucks of fried goat cheese, petals of shriveled beet chips do little to whet one's appetite. But one bite of the honey-drizzled cheese, and you understand the appeal of this particular alignment: sweet, tart, creamy, earthy, irreverent. The pan-fried mushrooms draped with shavings of Manchego cheese on grilled bread — a study in brown — go down like a steakhouse burger but, you know, vegetarian.
Mola shares DNA with its sister restaurant, Nido in Woodridge, another inviting neighborhood haunt that manages without a brand-name chef swanning around the dining room. Like Nido, Mola's bar program specializes in vermouth, the fortified wines whose resurrection in Spain has been more surprising than Mickey Rourke's return to relevancy. The Adonis, mixed with Atxa blanco vermouth and Napoleon amontillado sherry, is downright prune-ish — in the best possible way. The Vermouth Sour, by contrast, vibrates at higher frequencies, strong and acidic.
Lingle and Leopold have even migrated a dish or two over from Nido, at the behest of diners who apparently didn't want to drive all the way to Northeast D.C. for a taste of patatas bravas or ham croquetas. Personally, I find Washington a richer place — in at least two senses of the word — with Lingle's lightly fried, almost creamy ham croquetas, served with a mole verde, good and garlicky.
Despite its Spanish focus, Mola isn't really a tapas house. Its plates, often large and composed, can't be deemed "small" without a healthy sense of irony. If there's a truism about Mola, it's this: The larger the plate, the smaller the reward. The tuna steak, bisected with a fat line of pistachio and olive salsa verde, was grilled to the consistency of flannel, while the fried chipirones — Spanish for baby squid — were weighed down with a thick, virtually seasoning-less coating.
The downside of a restaurant built on the passions of a single person is that the place can suffer in her absence. Lingle was traveling in Spain for at least two of my visits, conducting more R&D when not hanging from rocks. The kitchen, under the direction of Marlon Ramirez, often performed admirably without Lingle, but the crew did serve a couple of dishes that were DOA. The arroz caldosa — a soupy dish of rice, prawns and butifarra sausage — was a flavor cipher, and the pistachio-and-cardamom crema Catalana (think: a liquidy creme brulee) was topped with a sugar crust burned to a hard, bitter edge.
With or without Lingle's presence, Mola bears her signature in the dining room, a mostly natural space with hardwood floors, brick walls, white-oak tables and rattan light fixtures that look like miniature hoop skirts. With her background in art, Lingle designed the space one found object and one Pinterest board at a time. It's a public room with an inexplicable tranquility, traversed by friendly, efficient servers.
It's also a room outfitted with plenty of two-tops, no doubt a practicality in such a tight space. But the tables seem symbolic, too: Mola feels as if it's made for couples. They can pull up a pair of chairs, unplug from their wired lives and slip into a gin and tonic, with a few dishes scattered between them, to literally draw the couple back together after a long day.
Mola is Spanish slang for "cool," a jazz-era adjective that still has currency in modern society. If you ask me, Abrazar — Spanish for "to embrace" — would have been a more appropriate name. But even if the restaurant doesn't suggest it by name, the place encourages connection by its space, its staff and its shareable plates. Embrace Mola. Embrace it with its imperfections.
Tom Sietsema is on assignment.
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3155 Mount Pleasant St. NW.
Open: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5:30 to midnight Friday and Saturday; 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Snacks $4 to $16; shareable plates $9 to $39.
Sound check: 70 decibels / Conversation is easy.