Above us is a leafy grape arbor threaded with small white lights. To our sides are brick walls and a sea of smiles. Dining in a courtyard under the stars is a bonding moment, especially when it involves small plates of Greek and Italian flavors from Tony Chittum: juicy fennel sausage arranged with crackling potato skins and a vivid herb sauce, springy pasta tossed with tender rabbit and summery tomatoes, and grilled sourdough finessed with creamy ricotta, smoky broccoli and silvery anchovies.
The chef and his colleagues from the Neighborhood Restaurant Group breathed new life into the historic property when they took over the Iron Gate Inn, which went dark four years ago after an 87-year run in Dupont Circle. Their rebranding efforts can be sampled two ways. A rear dining room — picture a tasting menu, red leather banquettes and fireplace — represents the formal route. More relaxed are the vaulted carriageway, preceded by giant lanterns and home to a long bar (don’t miss Jeff Faile’s ace cocktails), and the aforementioned patio, where a handful of family-style platters help crowd the zinc tables.
Tonight’s whole fish, stuffed with herbs and bound in grape leaves, sounds like an inside joke; “Vermilion” snapper taps the name of Chittum’s former roost in Old Town. With the fish comes a puree of zesty red peppers and feta cheese and a salad of black-eyed peas, corn and bacon, and condiments so luscious we continue eating them after the main event has been dispatched. Was the cookie plate baked by someone’s grandmother in the Old Country and FedEx’d over? Sure tastes like it.