Discerning history buffs know that when they crack open the latest from David McCullough, they’re in for transporting time travel. Film fans figure that if Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis is part of a picture, they’re likely to savor the flick.
Here in Washington, at least among devoted food followers, the name Ashok Bajaj has long held the promise of a reliable, sometimes even transcendent, dining experience. His portfolio of restaurants includes some of the top food destinations in the city, among them Rasika in Penn Quarter and the Oval Room downtown. Is there anything Bajaj can serve us that we won’t lap up?
As a matter of fact, there is, and it’s called Nopa Kitchen + Bar, the name a nod to the newcomer’s location north of Pennsylvania Avenue. Housed in what used to be Zola, the American brasserie opened to respectable applause in May, thanks to a handful of crowd-pleasers on the menu and attractive packaging. But then, instead of picking up steam, the restaurant just simmered on the burner.
You should know going into Nopa that the miniature fried fruit pies are blue-ribbon worthy. (Go easy, then, on the decadent buttery herbed rolls that open a meal.) The season dictates what you’ll find inside the nubby hot pastries — strawberries in spring became peaches in summer — and there’s a scoop of something cool and creamy — fromage blanc ice cream or peach melba frozen yogurt, respectively — to flatter the core.
A diner should also note that chicken, typically an undaring menu choice, makes an impressive start and segue here. Fried chicken might not be an obvious way to begin a meal, but the “snack” presented at Nopa brings a thigh and a leg that have been marinated with cayenne and egg yolk, then rolled in sweet rice flour and twice-fried to a fine crackle. And one of Nopa’s more memorable main courses is juicy roast chicken splayed on a pool of Fresno chili vinaigrette and dressed with a garland of sauteed sugar snap peas, corn and other bright vegetables.
As at all of Bajaj’s establishments, the service is genial and accommodating. When the bartender didn’t have the creme de violette necessary to make an Aviation, he called over to sister restaurant 701 nearby for the missing part. (Yes, the staff recognized this fan of the classic cocktail, but I want to believe that the crew would make the extra effort for guests they didn’t know.) Nopa’s engaging dining room staff also distracts customers from the reality that much of the food hovers in the merely pleasant range.
Deja vu envelops me as I sample the foie gras terrine presented with a bright orange puree of carrot and ginger, with fat slices of toasted bread for spreading. Ditto a pink cake of hamachi tartare perched on a dark ginger sauce with an island of sweet pea puree nearby. (The best parts of the latter appetizer: slivered red grapes and jalapeño doing a sweet-hot dance atop the raw minced fish.) Both are versions of dishes I’ve seen a hundred times in a hundred restaurants in the past — and have enjoyed more elsewhere. Given the résumé of Nopa chef Greg McCarty, who comes from Manhattan trendsetters Jean-Georges and Nobu 57, early expectations were lofty and have largely gone unmet.
One of the chef’s salads snaps me out of my stupor. Pink radishes, diced pineapple, batons of jicama, fresh mint and sharp feta will do that to a guy. Pow! Bang! The toss, invigorated with a lime-blasted vinaigrette, is vivid and fun. “Put sex in the food,” McCarty’s mentor, chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, advised his cooks, the protege recalls. Among the charcuterie selections is a very good smoked bluefish pâté served in a Mason jar with thin slices of dark rye bread. Garnishes of radishes, red onion and parsley turn the spread into a picnic for the shore. And vegetarians can look forward to McCarty’s “pastiche” of pearl onions, wax beans, pickled watermelon radishes and black quinoa over which a sweet-and-sour broth is poured. Another detail to toast: the presence of 10 cocktails for $10 (you read that right) from the bar.
I wish there were more “sex” to tell you about. Gnocchi with glazed mushrooms is not something the Italian at my table recognized; like her, I found the appetizer slick on the tongue and funky in fragrance. Fish entrees have been particularly disappointing. Skate on parsnip puree with pieces of rhubarb tastes like winter colliding with spring, a misguided notion made worse by oddly leathery fish. Silken-textured Chilean sea bass needs to lose its dessert-sweet baby eggplant, or at least the chef needs to dial back the sugar in the vegetable.
Nopa’s proximity to Verizon Center explains the numerous steaks and sandwiches on the menu. Naturally, there’s a hamburger, but it’s joined by imaginative alternatives, including a strapping sandwich of shaved pork and cabbage, and a meatless Vietnamese banh mi. The supposedly prime dry-aged strip steak I tried was a clunker: nondescript beef dolloped with a cloying mush of onions. A couple of bites in, I retreated to a safe haven on the plate: a heap of excellent french fries.
Those fruit pies share the dessert list with a pedestrian blackberry crumble made with what taste like clumps of mere brown sugar, and a banana trifle veined with dreadful sweet croutons in the fluff. The confection that comes close to the star dessert is the nutty and creamy chocolate bar.
The setting — white brick walls, lipstick-red banquettes, streams of light — is for the most part stylish and comfortable, and the recipe includes prime space for private parties. But Nopa can be as noisy as a construction site in the dining room closest to the bar, which is where I’ve found myself on every call. If you want to preserve your eardrums, ask to sit deeper in the restaurant.
Nopa is the baby in Bajaj’s collection of eight restaurants. But at this point in its life, it shouldn’t still be crawling along.
800 F St. NW. 202-347-4667. nopadc.com.
OPEN: 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
METRO: Gallery Place.
PRICES: Lunch appetizers $7 to $16, sandwiches and main courses $12 to $26; dinner appetizers $5 to $60 (for a seafood platter), main courses $19 to $38.
SOUND CHECK: 74 decibels/Must speak with raised voice