The introduction of Elisir in downtown Washington in fall 2011 was a gamble starring a $75 tasting menu, a stage set of a kitchen and the illusion of outsize champagne bubbles on the wall. Regretfully for its chef, Enzo Fargione, customers didn’t bite — or at least didn’t dine in his first restaurant in the numbers he anticipated.
Attempting to salvage his dream, Fargione shuttered the upscale Italian restaurant for 10 days in March and stripped the place of many of its plush details. When the business reopened, it was with a humbler name, Osteria Elisir, and a colorful sandwich board parked on the sidewalk letting the public know they could get crostoni and a cheese plate inside.
“I felt I needed to send a clear message: This is something different,” says Fargione of his reverse course. Osteria Elisir, he says, “is all about comfort.” Among the casualties in the rebranding were the five house-baked breads and the French linens on the tables, but curiously not the tasting of three salts and olive oils for dipping bread — still fun if fussy.
Gone, too, are the servers’ white jackets, recently replaced by casual black shirts. While the faux fizz continues to float on the walls, the design is obscured by common touches: a wine barrel top here, a garden shovel there. The exhibition kitchen is a less-visible attraction now, too, partially blocked with flowers, wine and bird cages.
Urban chic has, for the most part, given way to country rusticity.
The reduced state of affairs for the chef can be a boon for the discerning diner. I’m thinking now of the soothing bread-thickened, pepper-punched tomato soup that launched a recent lunch at the osteria. It’s just a few simple ingredients — and proof that nothing goes to waste in a conscientious kitchen — but the first course, brightened with basil, has the power to lift one’s spirits. The kitchen no longer serves lamb loin exhibited as two petite towers banded in pancetta and arranged with golden pearls of Yukon potatoes and sambuca-infused fennel. But I can’t say I miss the composition, not when there’s the opportunity to slice into the replacement lamb steak. The thin and rosy cut, framed with skin-on potatoes and tender Brussels sprouts, is Italian home cooking elevated by a professional. The comfort, finished with a zesty mustard sauce, is also a moderate deal at $27 (unless you cave to temptation and wash back the main course with a $16 glass of Amarone, an indulgence remaining on the evolving wine list).
Crostoni lead the list of appetizers; be sure to start with a plate. There are a half-dozen ways to top the crisp bread slices, all very good. Marinated shrimp on a smooth spread of white beans makes a light meal. Chicken liver pâtégets shocked with pickled red onion. A spread of garlic, hot peppers and hard cheese makes sure the vegetarian with a taste for heat is made to feel welcome at the party, too. Candied celery and Gorgonzola inspire yet another crostoni (and another idea for my next dinner party).
If there’s a breakout star in this production, it’s Fargione’s squid appetizer. Spicy Sicilian salami and ground raw shrimp are stuffed into an ivory tube of squid, which is scored so the pink filling is visible. The seafood is arranged on braised, thread-thin leeks and a saffron-tinted pool of garlic sauce. There’s a lot to contemplate, and enjoy, in this complex “comfort.”
Pastas are another compelling reason to reserve at the new Elisir. Cavatelli is lavished with bay scallops, mussels and shrimp that are cooked just before they join the pasta, which benefits further from a bite of chili and garlic. Wiry tagliolini with snips of suckling pig and smoked mozzarella is a simpler comfort. Half-portions aren’t an option, according to a server; plan, then, to bring some of your noodles home.
Spring’s lingering chill saw the return of a dish from Elisir’s former bar menu. Veal shoulder baked into a thick stew with potatoes, peas, celery, tomatoes and red wine did for the stomach what a thick scarf does for the neck.
Osteria Elisir encourages sharing with a category of main courses built for two. The selections include whole fish, an entire chicken, seafood stew and rib-eye steak. Even an order of half of that roast chicken could feed a family. Fargione brines the poultry in a bath with cardamom seeds, then stuffs it with lemon, sage and garlic. You will eat more of the main course than you expect to, trust me.
The chef’s deft touch was mostly absent one meal. It began with a timid venison carpaccio that seemed to be missing its advertised blueberries and continued, clumsily, with a platter of dry Italian sausages and undercooked beans. No course escaped inattention. The evening ended with a whimper in the form of an arid tower of almond cake. Nights like that are fortunately infrequent, however.
The dessert I crave most is the cookie plate: wafer-thin cat’s tongues, buttery caramels and airy buttons of meringue flavored with fennel. There’s the option of a bowl of pistachio-tinted zabaglione with the treats, and bully for you if you can resist. (I can’t.) Meanwhile, the bracing espresso proves a liquid postcard from Italy.
Cutbacks aren’t fun. In shifting from a ristorante to an osteria, Fargione says, “I have to put my pride aside.” His reincarnation is grounded in hard reality but supported by good taste. And guess what? The chef reports that Saturday night traffic has doubled.
427 11th St. NW. 202-546-0088. elisirrestaurant.com.
Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner
5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday
METRO: Federal Triangle
or Metro Center.
PRICES: Appetizers $6 to $16, main courses $17 to $28.
with raised voice.
el-eh-SEER) is Italian for elixir.