Just as a book critic is obliged to read to “The End” and a film reviewer stays until the credits roll, a conscientious food critic visits a subject multiple times before doling out stars (or not). The routine gives restaurants, an art form with lots of moving parts, a fair shot and helps a critic capture the whole experience — soups to nuts, if you will. If you haven’t noticed, Monday lunch can be a different experience than Saturday dinner, and one day’s MIA server or bad table can be balanced by another visit’s pampering waiter or choice seat.
Four meals into RPM Italian in Mount Vernon, a flashy Chicago import with celebrity ties, I still can’t predict with total confidence what your evening might taste like. I’ve had good dishes and forgettable ones, sometimes on the same night. The constants are a dining room designed to make even a work night feel celebratory and servers devoted to making you feel like a most favored patron. Water glasses never go low here, nor do any crumbs linger long on the ebony tables. A messy appetizer is followed by hot towels, spritzed with lemon before they’re doled out.
To the right of the host stand is a dark bar with a big, square counter. To the left of the greeters is an earth-toned dining room that practically insists you order champagne and truffles. All around you are attendants in white jackets and black ties, moving about the room with purpose, ferrying cocktails from the dreamy backlit bar and big bowls of shrimp from the kitchen. Picture prom, for adults. Only once, when a waiter suggested to a female companion two cocktails that “the ladies enjoy,” did anyone go off message. Lucky for him, RPM’s club music masked our collective groan.
There seem to be no bad seats, thanks to a banquette that runs down the center of the room and semicircular raised booths that give everyone a good gaze. The lighting does wonders for anyone hiding their age, but nothing for the wine list, written in type so small you’re obliged to ask the sommelier for recommendations. This is a good thing when the request yields a bottle of say, 2010 Colpetrone Sagrantino di Montefalco, an Umbrian red that smells of red fruits and vanilla. The small tables necessitate your choice being decanted out of sight but returned in a sleek flask trumpeting RPM’s style sense.
Does some of the sizzle feel chainlike? RPM Italian, backed in part by reality TV stars Bill and Giuliana Rancic, is part of Lettuce Entertain You, a company whose assets include Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab and Mon Ami Gabi. The formula might be corporate, but the actions feel personal.
Salads show flair. They also taste good, particularly slivers of apple, endive and hazelnuts in a high-gloss dressing. Caesar salad is served as a hedge rather than a hill, with capers for spark and crisp-soft croutons made with polenta. And one of my favorite ways to eat commonplace Brussels sprouts is here, where the cruciferous vegetable is shredded and combined with creamy avocado. Throw in some hot arancini, bursting with mushrooms, and you’re on your way to thinking you’ve found a place to add to your restaurant rotation.
Concerning seafood, think cold rather than hot, perhaps raw fish or oysters on the half shell instead of the main courses. Crimson squares of tuna crudo get a pick-me-up from green olives and pistachios atop each bite, while the oysters, showy in a silver bowl of ice, prick the tongue with a racy fennel-and-bell pepper mignonette.
Ordering “Simply prepared fish,” in contrast, reels in disappointments. Striped from the grill, swordfish is sliced too thin and proves most memorable for its red pepper relish. Dover sole suffers the humiliation of a sauce boat of “Sicilian lemon condiment” that tastes like what would happen if you boiled lemonade concentrate. Thick and sweet, it turns the delicacy into trash fish.
Pastas are a mixed bag, too. While some are on par with Washington’s starrier Italian kitchens, others smack of the kind of places where meatballs are the size of your head and diners exit with shopping bags of leftovers. Risotto is a model from the first camp. The grains of rice retain pleasant bite, and sautéed mushrooms sing the praises of the forest. Heat-seekers have scampi spaghettini to entertain them; Calabrian chilies, smoky and spicy, infuse the dish. (The server isn’t kidding when he asks about your threshold for pain if you ask about the pasta.) But other noodles drown in sauce, and with your eyes closed, it would be hard to discern carbonara’s from the gravy beneath rigatoni and (tasty) boar sausage.
Eating a veal chop — one time fine, another meal salty — or Dover sole at RPM always makes me wish I were eating those dishes instead at the homegrown Tosca downtown, whose superior kitchen treats similarly priced entrees with more respect (and consistency, another missing detail at the younger restaurant). Italian pride in serving what’s in season was AWOL on my picatta moderno. The surface of the flattened, breaded chicken breast was green with asparagus — in late fall. Pounded just as thin, chicken Parmesan, plucked from the menu’s “Italian Classics” section, also comes with a flaw, tomato sauce so sweet it could almost double as ice cream topping. “Barolo-braised” short rib is tender, but missing signs of the advertised wine.
All of which prompts the question: Will the real RPM Italian please stand up?
Frequent exposure to RPM yields a strategy for success. It starts with a salad or crudo or something fried, maybe a mound of zucchini coins with herbed yogurt; and embraces roast pork on a bed of creamy borlotti beans (mushroom risotto for the vegetarian). For the ending? The pastry kitchen whips up terrific gelato, silky panna cotta garnished with tiny Italian meringues, and cannoli whose crisp shells give way to true-flavored pistachio and vanilla fillings (but not chocolate, which falls flatly sweet).
The dessert that commands the most attention — and the highest price, $23 — is the meringue torte. Set aflame at the table, the confection prompts smiles all around and additional sales. The fire gets extinguished in sweet fashion, with chocolate sauce. Unfortunately, it’s all show. The cake, a combination of salted caramel and vanilla gelato, is enough to feed four. But it’s so sweet, and dry in parts, that even the dessert die-hards put down their forks after a cloying bite or two.
RPM Italian has good looks and service in its favor. I’ll be sure to suggest the venue to anyone who values ambiance and attention over food.
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650 K St. NW.
Open: Dinner daily.
Prices: Appetizers $5 to $30, main courses $14 to $61.
Sound check: 84 decibels / Extremely loud.