The Italian restaurant that opened as La Forchetta and morphed into Al Dente celebrated its first anniversary April 2. But a more impressive milestone was Feb. 20, when executive chef Roberto Donna introduced Roberto’s 4. It’s a four-seat counter with a view into Al Dente’s kitchen that serves an $85 tasting menu, and it resurrects the enormous talent of the Washington chef who took home the James Beard award for best Mid-Atlantic chef in 1996: Roberto Donna.
Al Dente is a respectable, mid-priced source of pasta and pesce. Roberto’s 4 is a chance for Donna to revive the glory days of Galileo and its restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Laboratorio del Galileo — or, as the chef says, “to cook what I want to cook.” Elements from both of his former establishments surface in his new domain, although the many little dishes at Roberto’s 4 have been informed by modernist cooking philosophy.
Dinner commences with a wink and a laugh. A tiny pizza box holds a small round of baked dough topped with a quail egg and shaved black truffles. The playful pie is followed by a slim wooden fork supporting a fold of winy prosciutto and a bite of fried bread, then by a
morsel that tastes like a fried olive and comes with a small black squeeze tube. “Am I supposed to brush my teeth?” a companion asks. No, he’s told, the tube contains mortadella “mayonnaise” (mousse) for piping on the olive. A single whole shrimp in crackling batter comes to the counter on a wire stand that positions the shellfish as an edible acrobat. We’re instructed to dip the shrimp in a sunny squiggle of saffron sauce and eat it head and all. Crunch. The snack goes down like a seafood potato chip.
The whimsical touches bring to mind the artistry of French chef Michel Richard and Spanish maestro Jose Andres. Say that aloud at Roberto’s 4, with Donna just feet away, and the compliment is greeted with an outsize frown from the animated chef. (I think the sulk is play-acting.)
Veal sweetbreads taste of Marsala and come with a twist: fleshy cockscomb. More, please.
Scrambled eggs, creamy with burrata and offered in halved shells, lead to several pastas. At this point, it comes as no jolt that the house-made spaghetti decorated with sea urchin arrives cupped in the spiky shell of the sea creature itself.
Donna’s bite-size plin, brushed with butter and sage, are a luscious flashback to his earlier career and the ravioli of his native Piedmont. His herbed risotto recalls delicious meals past, too, although surely this is the first time he has staged the grains in what looks like a can of tuna.
Not every dish sings. The lush bar of salmon revealed beneath a glass cloche hazy with smoke will be all too familiar to food fashionistas. And the homier roast pork cries out for salt. But a diner really has to hunt for reasons not to see stars.
The cheese course is a sliver of dried focaccia teetering over a nugget of Gorgonzola and a wrinkled roasted yellow tomato. Dessert is four divine acts long; it embraces the best panna cotta I have ever eaten and bombolini and warm chocolate presented in tiered votive glasses. Honestly, the display is more fetching than the flavor, but frankly, I’m more than sated at this point.
Donna doesn’t want to grow the size of his audience or the frequency with which he offers his 20-course, 135-minute-long feast. One 7 p.m. seating for four, Tuesday through Thursday, is enough when it’s just him doing the show, he says.
The tab doesn’t include wine, tax or tip and can escalate to double the set price when you factor in those extras. That’s a lot of money for a stool at a counter on the side of a bustling trattoria. But Roberto’s 4 left at least one patron with more goose bumps than a whole season of eating elsewhere in town.
3201 New Mexico Ave. NW. 202-244-2223. firstname.lastname@example.org. Dinner, $85 per person excluding wine, tax and gratuity. Optional wine pairing, $45.