Clark can cook. Order his linguine and clams and tell me otherwise. In true Italian fashion, the chef sets his ego aside and lets the ingredients shine. When you’ve got good seafood, you don’t need more than garlic, parsley and chile flakes to stage it, and I appreciate the slightly undercooked pasta and the use of olive oil rather than butter in the dish.
But first, a starter: fluke crudo if it’s hot enough to cook an egg on the street or you simply want some refreshment. The sliced raw fish gets a brushstroke of white soy sauce and yuzu juice and brighteners of fava bean tartare and mint oil. Fabio Trabocchi would be proud to serve the elegant appetizer at his seafood-themed Fiola Mare. Another smile-inducer, juicy grilled quail propped up on crisp polenta shows that the kitchen can do rustic as well as refined.
The wooden paddles on the walls suggest pizza in your future, an option underscored by an oak-powered black oven in the rear. Take the hint and ask for a plate-sized pie, the prize of which combines folds of spicy salami, Fresno chiles, a suggestion of mozzarella and a drizzle of honey on a crust you’ll want to finish. The pleasantly chewy base, made with whole-wheat flour and fermented for two days, doesn’t taste like anyone else’s in town, and a little time in the 800-degree oven imparts a fine char.
The best is saved for last. Chicken might sound like a snooze, but chicken cooked skin-side down, under a weight, results in a wonderful crunch. “It’s all about the skin,” says the chef. Throw in crisp maitake mushrooms, artichoke confit and a vinaigrette stoked with red pepper and guanciale and you’re in Italian American heaven.
Where to settle in? The shaded front patio facing Franklin Square if you like to people-watch and don’t mind urban sound effects; the marble bar if you want a quick bite; the dining room with its silvery chairs and marble columns should you desire a touch more comfort. Is San Pellegrino a sponsor? A diner wonders, given the forest of green water bottles on display. (Having renovated the lobby and dining room, formerly the sad 14K Restaurant, owner EOS Hospitality is focusing on banquet spaces and guest rooms. The due date for completion is fall 2020.)
The service reminds you this is a new restaurant, eager to be embraced. “If you have any questions, any at all, let me know,” a waiter let me know during one visit. The attention can border on the hypervigilant — except, oddly, when a full cocktail is whisked away with no one wondering why it was basically untouched. (Gin, Cocchi vermouth, honey and dragon fruit puree make for a surprisingly bland lavender drink.) On the flip side, the last time I was in, multiple overseers were engaging with what appeared to be hotel guests and tourists, as if they were all TripAdvisor contributors. Hey, it’s a competitive market for mouths these days!
“We want to be known as an amazing Italian restaurant on the corner of 14th and K, not a hotel restaurant,” says Joe Palminteri, director of food and beverage. It’s early to make predictions, but Clark’s pasta, pizza and chicken are doing their best to make regulars of locals.
1001 14th St. NW, in the Hamilton Hotel. 202-218-7575. viasophiadc.com. Dinner entrees, $20 to $38.
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