The salad clearly conveys the server’s message about how Limardo, a native of Venezuela, bridges the Mediterranean and Latin America on the menu of his second upscale restaurant in Washington. The chef’s first establishment, the novel Seven Reasons on 14th Street NW, went on to become my No. 1 restaurant in 2019. So you can imagine how excited I was when I heard Limardo and his business partner, Ezequiel Vázquez-Ger, were plotting another place for fine dining. As luck would have it, they inherited the almost-finished interior of a Greek restaurant whose chef decided against leaving Greece during the pandemic. “We saved a lot of money,” says Vázquez-Ger.
A skeptic might call out Imperfecto for letting itself off the hook with its name. Limardo begs to differ. “We seek perfection, but we will never achieve it,” he says. While he and his crew strive to do their best, making mistakes is part of the journey. And the journey, he says, should be a happy one.
Limardo is talking about his colleagues, whose obvious satisfaction can’t help but make its way from kitchen to table. Taste the burrata and see for yourself. The soft Italian cheese is tangy from a hit of lemon salt, blackened with vegetable ash and arranged with things that compel you to think about what you’re eating: tiles of pineapple stained with balsamic vinegar, a blush-colored syrup made from extra-sweet Kumato tomatoes, a dab of pesto brightened with mint. Less showy but equally delightful is the moussaka “cigar,” which slips warm-spiced ground lamb and smoked eggplant into a wand of flaky phyllo. Double dipping is so two years ago, but I found myself returning an ever-shorter baton to the accompanying whip of manchego and feta cheese.
You’ll be encouraged to order four courses, if not the chef’s tasting menu. The appetizer scale of most dishes is intentional. Limardo says he simply wants us to “try more.” Tuna tartare, shimmering with orange trout roe, is reimagined with garnishes of sliced finger lime and pale green dollops of shishito pureed with chickpeas. The gentle heat in the dish comes from “Latin toum,” which translates to emulsified garlic zapped with guajillo pepper, an intriguing departure from the garlic sauce made sunny with lemon common to Middle Eastern menus. The bluefin tuna is distinctive, too. Ahead of serving it, Limardo covers the raw fish with seaweed, boosting the maritime quotient of the dish.
Limardo has a knack for pairing contrasts. Seared foie gras glides to the table with a soursop compote atop a crisp round of plantain brioche. The chef also has a sense of humor. Brined, steamed, fried cauliflower is introduced as “Egyptian KFC,” thanks to a crackling crust spiked with cayenne, onion, garlic and other finger-licking-good seasonings. The cauliflower, a vegan selection, is shored up with a delicious salad of Egyptian red lentils.
The richest dish of the lot may be the slow-cooked lamb, shaped into a soft terrine and grouped with red cabbage, sweetened with agave syrup, and a potato puree inspired by the late French chef, Joël Robuchon, famous for using copious amounts of butter to create some of the world’s silkiest spuds. A puddle of lamb jus, fortified with red wine and port, intensifies the splurge. Shaved black truffles lend their musk to the indulgence, which smacks more of the Old World than the restaurant’s stated mission — not that I didn’t make short work of the relic.
The takeaway from chicken breast served in a straitjacket of its own air-dried, roasted skin: The best part of the presentation is the fruity circle of pureed green tomatoes and pineapple inside a brown circle of mole. The smooth mole, crafted from pecans, oranges and enough spices to launch a McCormick pop-up, is warm and wonderful, the perfect excuse to introduce Imperfecto’s head chef, Rene Gonzalez, who cooked with Limardo 14 years ago in Venezuela and went on to work for Enrique Olvera, the guiding light at the acclaimed Pujol in Mexico City.
Imperfecto’s artful food gets a clean and contemporary backdrop. The owners had to add little more than some lamps, plants and chairs to the space they acquired. I get that they want Imperfecto to be energetic, but one night, what thrummed like club music channeled South Beach during spring break. No, thanks. Cheers, though, for the recently installed patio furniture, a boon to customers who prefer dining outside to indoors during the pandemic.
If the service seems unusually smooth and gracious, it’s because a number of employees hail from the Fabio Trabocchi school of hospitality. You are likely to drink as well as you eat at Imperfecto, which pours some of the most alluring cocktails in town. Kudos to whoever thought to provide illustrations of the stemware for each drink alongside a menu description so thorough, you can easily imagine how a cocktail will go down. The beauty award goes to Coast to Coast: gin, grappa and lemon juice tinted with fresh basil and sporting a light froth of egg white. Parting is such sweet sorrow. Be sure to enlist Raquel Ortega for wine suggestions. I appreciate the way the sommelier, a veteran of Del Mar at the Wharf, introduces possibilities. Instead of just talking up the options, she places a menu in front of you and points to what she has in mind, so you can see not just the selection, but its cost. No one but the two of you need to know your budget.
Just looking at the lineup of seven scoops of colorful sorbets — among them white peach infused with black tea and a bracing Sicilian lemon — refreshes its recipient; a new favorite is just a spoonful away. Pastry chef Genesis Flores uses a ceramic plateau to present her gold leaf-garnished, mascarpone-filled eclair, over which a server pours a stream of coffee anglaise. Accidentally, the cream sauce ran over the side of the stage and onto the marble table when I received it. The server responded with what I read as a smile and an apology: “Imperfecto!” Closer to ideal is the not-too-sweet ricotta creme brulee, its crackling burnt-sugar surface dotted with beet gel and strewn with purple viola flowers. Souvenirs follow, in the form of gratis chocolate bars in wrappers as stylish as the custom-tailored suits worn by male staff.
The bill reminds diners they’ve spent time in a luxury venue. On my visits, Imperfecto added a 22 percent service fee that confused customers, because it was sometimes explained as going toward safety and other pandemic-related costs. Feedback from staff and diners resulted in a return to traditional tipping, which will be optional after Mother’s Day.
Imperfecto doesn’t set out to be flawless, and it’s not. But it’s an intriguing addition to the dining scene, a signal that fine dining is back and, for some of us, a reminder to retrieve the suits and dresses we left at the dry cleaners a year or so ago.
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Imperfecto 1124 23rd St. NW, Washington. 202-964-1012. imperfectodc.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and brunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Prices: Dinner appetizers $15 to $27, main courses $31 to $59; 12-course chef’s tasting menu $150 per person. No delivery or takeout. Accessibility: Heavy glass doors precede the foyer, but the restrooms are ADA-compliant.