For all those diners weary of having to shout through a meal, some relief on 14th Street NW: Tico. The “American restaurant with international influences” was built with all five senses in mind, says Michael Schlow, the decorated Boston-based chef with seven establishments around the country, including a Tico in Beantown.
“Hearing,” he says of his maiden restaurant in the District, “is as important as tasting.”
At first glance, it’s hard to believe the James Beard Foundation award winner. Tico is 5,000 square feet dressed with 150 seats and a sea of bare wood tables. But look up. Tico’s artful ceiling — pressed tin on one side, plum-colored panels on the other — is designed with soundproofing materials. (A busy night isn’t exactly a hushed experience; the shock absorbers above are best appreciated by those who are sitting rather than those who are standing.)
Schlow’s menu draws on his travels to Spain, Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, places where he says “there’s a zest for life and eating together.” The chef says he’s less concerned about serving food that’s authentic than about making sure it’s playful: “You’ll never see a paella,” for instance.
Instead, patrons encounter tasty fried-fish tacos, chorizo risotto and tender lamb meatballs garnished with panes of ricotta salata and served in a robust tomato sauce. I expect the cabbage salad, a beautiful study in green, to be the hit it is in Boston. Shredded cabbage, romano beans, asparagus, zucchini and crushed Marcona almonds, everything enlivened with a salsa verde vinaigrette, add up to a winning combination. Schlow says he conceived the dish (“my
attempt at a green salad”) one night at home from what he found in his refrigerator. Everyone’s remnants should go down so pleasingly.
Animating the stage set of a kitchen: executive chef George Rodrigues, late of the original Tico and a native of Brazil. For design help, Schlow turned to his wife, Adrienne. The mixed-media artist is responsible for the dining room’s distressed columns, edgy art and movable glass walls, which she painted using a turkey baster.
“Is everything delicious?” a server wants to know. The abundance of uneaten tuna seviche, which needs every drop of its lime wedge, is my unspoken response. Octopus with pickled shallots and chickpeas is another so-so dish. A round of tart margaritas (or better yet, margaritas flavored with hibiscus) evens things out.
Like a good politician, Schlow is bonding with his new audience by playing up his links to the region. His late father came from Washington, his sister went to George Washington University and, more significantly, his grandfather owned a shoe store — burned down in the 1968 riots but later rebuilt — not far from where Tico D.C. opened earlier this month. In a nod to the Mid-Atlantic, the kitchen serves a blue crab taco (a riff on a BLT) in place of the lobster taco offered at the Northeast location.
Tico, says Schlow, takes its name from the word used in Costa Rica to flag a local or friend, which this new kid on the block already seems to be.
1926 14th St. NW. 202-319-1400. ticodc.com. Main courses, $15 to $29.