Thursday, November 20, 2008

A for Effort

I taught high school history for several years, and came out of the experience with a particular appreciation for the giddiness and pitfalls inherent to youthful efforts. This is the only explanation I have for enjoying my dinner with O. at Darlington House as much as I did.

The restaurant, in the densely-packed restaurant strip north of Dupont Circle is owned by Fabio and Patricia Beggiato, who also own and operate Sesto Senso (a club with a very good kitchen, or a restaurant with a very good DJ). The kitchen is helmed by Chef Alexander Schulte and Pastry Chef Monica Padua, both in their early twenties. The space and service bear all the hallmarks of experience - welcoming decoration that is not too-homey (a la Restaurant Nora) while avoiding the excesses of a design-school project (Oya), and a very pleasant hostess at the front. The restaurant does look like a house, down to the beautifully up-holstered chairs, the kind your much cooler friends live in, with all the flea-market garage sales finds. The service was friendly and diligent without being pushy. We sat facing a beautiful wooden bar with an interesting feature: a full window right by the service hallway, where more than one person stopped to chat. It gave the bar a lot more whimsy than you would expect from dark wood panelling.

The food, however, looses this sense of balance. We were there for the promotional fixe prix (part of Open Table's Appetite Stimulus Plan), which is a great way to try new restaurants and see how they find creative ways to showcase their menu while cutting down costs. The kitchen's youth is evident in how it rebels in certain things - the adventurous wine list and the wonderful desserts. I had a pumpkin cheesecake with a gingersnap crust topped with vanilla bean whipped cream. The texture was perfect and the play of the pungency of the vanilla with the earthiness of the pumpkin and the sweet bite of the ginger made for a memorable dessert. O. had a lovely bread pudding with a touch of chocolate sauce.

Unfortunately, the kitchen is also at a loss with what to do with certain things, giving the impression that it needs a seasoned hand. The appetizers were well made but nothing special - a polenta with wild mushrooms, three cheeses and truffle oil for me and an arugula and bartlett pear salad for O. The size of the salad made me think of the paltry portion of greens we would put on our plates as kids to show grandma that we were eating vegetables, if only to secure desert. The polenta was tasty, but the dish lacked sufficient contrast in textures, since the mushrooms weren't as easy to differentiate from the starch as they could be. I had read good things about the pasta at Darlington House, but ever since I read Bill Buford's wonderful book, Heat, I order short ribs every chance I get. My short rib was completely separated from the bone; parts of it were chewy and the fat hadn't activated at all. Basic seasonings were also lacking. I thought it was a fluke and I had a bad piece of meat until O. confirmed that hers wasn't much better. The side of potatoes au gratin were the best thing on the plate.

Youthful exuberance to make you believe in the comfort of food and friends. I'll give it a few months and visit them again.

Darlington House
1610 20th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009
Darlington House on Urbanspoon

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