Eating around Town Vol. 1 – Al Dente Ristorante

3201 New Mexico Ave, NW

Eating around Town is a new series written by a number of PoPville contributors. Today’s review of Al Dente was written by dcreba. dcreba is a big apple transplant and enthusiast of all things edible. she lives – and often eats – in Logan Circle.

The ever controversial Roberto Donna (Culinary tour de force! Embezzler! James Beard winner!) recently won accolades from Esquire magazine, lauding him as Chef of the Year in their listings of Best New Restaurants in 2012.

This Best New Restaurant is Al Dente. And prior to the Esquire review, I was unaware of its existence. A quick perusal of the literature tracks Donna’s circuitous history: Chef rises to glory with his Italian behemoth, Galileo, which undergoes three different inceptions – and locations – over 16 years. Chef falls from grace with reports of embezzlement and failure to pay his employees. Chef opens La Forchetta in a nondescript building in Wesley Heights, relegated to the kitchen and relieved of financial involvement, leaving this management to owner Hakan Ilhan. Restaurant changes name to avoid litigious goings on with a similarly named Adams Morgan restaurant, La Fourchette. This brings us to present day, where Donna is hoping to rewrite history – or at least change the course of things, moving forward – at the helm of Al Dente.

We visit Al Dente on a chilly Monday night. The restaurant is brightly lit and awash in Valentines decorations. My dining companion, with an excellent eye for design, did a calculated 360 sweep of the restaurant and pronounced its aesthetics distracting. “I’m not sure I can take the food seriously, when its decorated like this,” she said warily. As our meal unfolded before us over the next few hours, there were some clunkers, yes, but very pleasant surprises as well, and it became possible to lose sight of our surroundings and focus on the food at hand.

Continues after the jump.

The menu is far too large, offering up nearly three full pages of cold and hot appetizers, housemade pastas and risottos, pietanze or main courses, and chef specialties. We were immediately overwhelmed. And then took a deep breath and got down to the business of ordering.

The cicchetti caldi and freddi, cold and hot small plates, were some of the loveliest offerings of our meal. The Baccala Mantecato, a whipped salt cod puree, was airy and immensely flavorful. Served with warm bread, it would have been a perfect first course on its own. Also excellent: the Sicilian Caponata Eggplant salad and the Prosciutto Wrapped Dates. Both were beautifully prepared and left the table wanting more. Less successful: the pork belly served with cloyingly sweet apples (“this would be delightful in apple crisp,” marveled one at the table) instead of an acidic bite that would have only enhanced the tender belly meat. The handmade pickled vegetables were not sharply pickled at all, and were a soggy disappointment.

Our pastas were also hit and miss. The agnolotti was a standout. Tiny pillows of veal, beef, and pork, perfectly cooked, resting in butter and sage. My dining partners were impressed. “Now this,” said one, with her mouth full, pointing meaningfully at the dish with her fork, “this is profoundly good.” The calamarata pasta, a seafood dish with pasta rings resembling squid, was simply enormous. The pasta rings themselves were large, and overwhelmed the more delicate clams and mussels hiding in the basil scented broth. The ragged strips of housemade pappardelle with wild boar ragu might have been perfectly cooked but had been left to sit a few moments too long in the kitchen. The wild boar lacked depth and meaty flavor, both lost in the waves of gummy pasta ribbons.

The service through the meal was gracious if not a bit too attentive. Servers tried several times to remove dishes before we were done with them. Our waiter had an excellent grasp on both the menu and predominantly Italian wine list alike and we welcomed his suggestions. The wine list is quite reasonably priced.

The spacious and brightly lit dining room, though, continued to detract from our meal. The food, we all agreed, deserved to be showcased in a more intimate setting where it could shine. It was hard to forget about the almost garish surroundings and on a quiet weekday, with many tables empty, we were at sea in the cavernous main dining room.

“Al Dente” is an Italian term that literally means “to the tooth” and refers to the doneness of pasta. Al Dente the restaurant lacks a certain doneness and could use a bit more consistency within its dishes – as well as an aesthetics overhaul – to really succeed. In an area with a paucity of restaurants, I’m confident it has been welcomed for variety alone. There is talk of a second, more youthful Italian outpost in the Mt. Vernon triangle still to come – perhaps with version 2.0 will come improved ambiance and more point-your-fork-at-them-while-your-eyes-roll kind of dishes.

Overall impression: Walk, don’t run, but do give it a try, especially if you’re in the area.  Al Dente. 3201 New Mexico Ave NW Washington DC 20016

18 Comment

  • Where the heck is New Mexico Avenue??? I’ve never even heard of this place!

  • Yup – next to the original Cheff Geoff’s.

  • Oh my god, really? More random would-be food critics?

    I’m taking the time to respond to this because I resent, as a former-chef-now-professional-food-writer, how this “review” was written and take exception to many of the things so cavalierly presented. I have followed this site for years, supported it and trusted it as a place to go to for uncannily reported news of goings-on around town. I do not care to come here for restaurant reviews. We have plenty of places to go to already to read badly written opinions of anonymous people with forks and keyboards.

    I have many objections to this piece but I will just cite a few. Well, more than a few.

    Is there some particular reason why the public should take this reviewer seriously because she’s from the Big Apple and is enthusiastic about food? These are the credentials?

    How dare this interloper, this transplant, dismiss Roberto Donna’s history without knowing anything about it or what he brought and meant to the development of Washington’s dining scene as we know it today. (Has this person even heard of I Matti? I bet not.) The research seems to be little more than a cursory (“quick perusal”) Google search. I mean the temerity is really appalling.

    This person betrays her ignorance about the DC restaurant scene by revealing the she had never even heard of the restaurant before it appeared in Esquire. And yet her opinion is supposed to matter to us? She claims Donna was “relegated” to the kitchen? A chef does not consider a kitchen to be a place of relegation. It is a shady, irresponsible word to use. I am offended by the lack of respect for Roberto Donna’s work coming from someone who is not in a position to speak with any authority on the subject.

    She goes on to say thatDonna is looking to “rewrite history?.” Was he interviewed for this review? (I highly doubt it.) Did he say he was looking to rewrite history? Another opinion based on what, exactly? What history is he looking to rewrite? That of being one of Washington’s pioneer tastemakers? I find the writers insinuation highly irresponsible. I think Roberto just wants to go about his business and get on with his life.

    Here we have not one but two (or more?) dubiously qualified diners sharing dubious opinions: an anointed design expert and an anointed food aficionado. The one with the “excellent eye for design” looks around and finds the decor distracting. The writer, however, doesn’t bother to describe this decor, so distracting that her extremely sensitive companion may be rendered “unable to take the food seriously.” Give me a break.

    The offending decor gets a mention again several grafs down— and still is not described, except with the vague word “almost garish.” (I find it neither garish nor almost so and I am told I have an excellent eye for design.) The other word used a descriptor of the space is “cavernous,” which it is not. She complains about feeling “at sea” in the place because it was almost empty—on a Monday night.

    “The menu is far too large,” Ms. Anonymous blithely deems. Why does she think so, I wonder? Others, like I do, may think that it offers a wide range of choice.

    In the third graf, the writer refers to “(her) dining companion.” That is, one person. Yet, in the sixth graf, she suddenly has “dining partners,” all of whom have apparently qualified opinions.

    The wine list is “quite reasonably priced” and yet there are no examples given, so we have no idea what this food enthusiast considers reasonable.

    Then she pronounces judgment about consistency–based on what was clearly one visit. In a mention of a sister restaurant opening, she seeks “point-your-fork-at-them-while-your-eyes-roll kind of dishes.” What does that term even mean? She calls this new place “a second, more youthful Italian outpost.” Again, what does that mean? A restaurant that opens after another one is, de facto, younger than the first one, right? Or does she mean to say that the clientele will be youthful and therefore that of Al Dente is olden?

    “Walk, don’t run” to Al Dente she suggests at the end of the piece. I suggest the reverse strategy away from her offering.

    • Wow, you must have been a lot of fun to work with.

      Remind me not to read any restaurant reviews by this pompous windbag.

      • At least I am not an anonymous pompous windbag.

      • saf

        David is an amazing chef.

        His pieces for the Post food section are brilliant.

        • +1000 David is brilliant and his review is spot on …

        • I can’t attest to his food or his pieces for the Post but the petty internet outbursts he writes for PoP are amazing. I could almost see the spittle flying off the computer screen.

        • That may be, but sheesh, he doesn’t need to get so up in arms about a review that the writer presumably submitted to PoP. I think PoPville’s readers are aware that the various contributions come from people who aren’t professional food critics, movie critics, journalists, etc. and accordingly cut them some slack.

          It’s poor manners for a professional to call out an amateur in this manner. He might have valid points, but the criticism hardly comes across as constructive.

        • Amazing chef or not, he comes off as a fucking asshole in this post, and no self-respecting employee of the Washington Post would EVER post something like this on a blog.

    • jim_ed

      I’m not going to lie, I quit reading this half-way through. However, I appreciate and applaud your outrage against unpaid random internet writers sharing their opinions. After you’ve finally taken all the Yelpers of the world to task, I’d love to point you in the direction of Bleacher Report and their ilk.

      Bravo and Godspeed.

    • Yeah, I guess if I was a “professional” critic and found that first time amateurs wrote reviews about as good as mine I’d be pissed, too. You haven’t done this long enough (or well enough) to play the old curmudgeon so either quit whining or write something better.

      • The restaurant business is not a joke. There are people’s livelihoods at stake here. If someone wants to write nice, supportive pieces about neighborhood restaurants, I take no issue with it. But when someone presents him or herself as a critic, makes negative comments and suggests people don’t go out of their way to patronize a place, then that person runs the risk of being called out.

        How is it poor manners for me to take exception to something I consider wrong and explain why and yet it is not poor manners for an anonymous person to say whatever negative things she wants to about a restaurant? How is it poor manners to ask that someone provide something substantial to back up their opinions? If you want to go public with your reviews, you should expect scrutiny. you cannot have it both ways.

        I think there is way to discuss restaurants here in a positive manner. Do we really need more armchair critics? Why not support the restaurant community? If negativity is to be promoted, then it is not too much to ask for some editing and fact-checking to take place and for the people writing the reviews to put their real names on them and stand behind them.

        The personal attacks here don’t bother me. People don’t pay me to write because they are doing me a big favor. Take my opinions or leave them, but I was a chef/restaurateur for 25 years, have been a published writer for 10 and am a cookbook author. At least I have something on which to base my opinions. Like a frame of reference.

        • For someone who calls themselves a “writer,” it would appear that nobody is paying you to write anything these days, if you have the time to troll sites like PoPville.

        • The restaurant business is definitely not a joke and this writer made no indication of that. Criticism and feedback are the foundations for improvement. Her review absolutely supports the restaurant community – and an honest opinion goes a long way. If the decor sucks and the vegetables are soft, no need to lie about it. There were other high points to the meal and they were also noted.

          Very few (if any) restaurants in this city succeed on purely excellent food. Reputation goes a long way. I’m sure you are aware of this – while you may be an accomplished and excellent chef, your current level of success is likely propelled at least in part by your reputation.

          I would urge you to remember the days when you were just an amateur – before everyone knew you by name and your product was gold the minute you released it, before your league of followers applauded every word out of your mouth and every morsel you put on their plate. Your success I’m sure involved taking risks, learning from your mistakes, and learning to press on in light of others negative opinions.

          Quite frankly, If your food is half as tainted with your ego as your writing is, I’d be much happier to listen to any amateur critic. But you should run to this restaurant and then enlighten us all with your professional opinion.

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