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

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