A 45-minute wait for a table for two on a Tuesday night in Clarendon? Yes, and the hostess asks if she can have your cell-phone number, too.
“So we can call you when your table’s ready.”
How is it that a restaurant that makes a point of ordering from a host of heirloom suppliers can’t see to it to stock a half-dozen pagers? But this was my third visit to Tallula, so by this time I was no longer taken aback by the presumption of a 2-month-old restaurant that would dare to put the onus on its customers. A few weeks earlier, I’d waited over an hour (after being promised a mere 20 minutes) to be ushered to my table with two of my friends—at the exact same moment that another host had ushered another party to the exact same table.
The staff’s attempt at appeasement that night came in the form of a small plate of the restaurant’s two-bite hors d’oeuvres, included on which was a baby burger, the suddenly ubiquitous arbiter of restaurant hipness. The table of three nearby—and I do mean nearby; only a McDonald’s has more cramped seating—was plowing through a plate of six of them. My neighbors opted next for a round of corn dogs, as well as a nice, inexpensive bottle of pinot noir: haute junk food to go along with the post-Sideways It Juice. And that was before I’d fully taken in the pressed-tin ceiling and the exposed beams and the smartly placed votive candles and the Fab Five–ish maroon-and-orange color scheme.
It’s tempting to dismiss Tallula as another trendy pretender, just as it’s tempting to bail on the wait and go get a regular, adult-sized burger. But, as a little patience proves, there’s a real restaurant here, one that offers a multitude of rewards.
The wine list, for one. After taking over the space that Whitey’s claimed for 27 years, the new owners, who include veterans of the Evening Star Cafe, Vermilion, the Clarendon Grill, and the Clarendon Ballroom, installed a wine store next to the restaurant. The result? A neighborhood that’s suddenly a lot more yuppie and a wine list that’s long on variety and practicality—70 by the glass.
Chef Nathan Anda’s teasing two-biters, intended as a riff on the amuse-bouche that precedes a more elaborate repast, make for an odd, makeshift dining experience, but the instinct to cobble and graze is understandable, especially if you’re going to linger for a while over your wine. Their quality is uneven—they range from the great (the corn beignets, oozing a rich, creamy corn filling that is never gooey) to the good (the burgers, with their caramelized onions and steak-sauce intensity) to the out-and-out bad (cured salmon nestled in some dull potato skins, a foie-gras-and-blueberry-jam sandwich that tastes as if it had been contrived on a dare)—but nobody at my table registered even a peep of complaint at the bombs. Failures can be forgiven, so long as they’re interesting failures.
The starters, it turns out, are a bit of an aberration; Anda is otherwise charmingly old-fashioned. A stint at Equinox shows in his uncluttered plates and his regard for honest, unfussy food cooked with care. Short ribs and polenta are as common nowadays for New American chefs as steak and mashed potatoes used to be, but Anda doesn’t attempt to remake the dish to make it his own. He simply coaxes a great, slow-cooked depth of flavor from both the tough, humble meat and the grits; his green-tomato salsa, smoky and sweet, is embellishment enough. A dish of red snapper looks dazzling, with its dark, crispy skin set off by thin coins of purple potato; when you dig into the sweet flesh of the fish and spear some chips, you realize that it’s really just an unspectacular dish done with uncommon care.
Scallops, firm and pearlescent and seared to crispness, are napped by a parsnip purée. It’s a dish of quiet daring—the one sweetness intensifying the other, just as the one whiteness is made starker by the other. A lowly grilled chicken breast is ennobled by its accompanying organic carrots, along with its iron crock of long-braised chicken in a lush, tarragon-scented stew.
If there’s a weak link, it’s the pasta—which is surprising, given that at Equinox, Anda apprenticed under Todd Gray, who apprenticed under Roberto Donna. Ricotta gnocchi are soft, all right, but they taste as if mashed potatoes, left to sit, had been scooped and fashioned into nubbins. And a plate of butternut-squash ravioli’s unexpected touch of flash—a drizzle of ancho sauce—obliterates all sense of balance in the dish.
Anda came up with each of the five desserts, and here, again, the emphasis is on the sturdy and simple as opposed to the showy and rich. The cappuccino crème brûlée, served in a coffee cup, has a wonderfully soft, yielding texture and a strong presence of roasted beans. A delicate meringue-topped blueberry tart comes flanked by a sublime lemon-shortbread cookie and a spoonful of spiced blueberries, in perfect imitation of a serving of caviar. Best of all is the apple strudel, which is every bit as airy as it is buttery, and every bit as memorable as it is unexpected. The first, shell-shattering bite will send you back to that long-ago epoch before yuppies and cell phones and stylized suburban chic. You’ll be grateful you decided to stick around, after all.
Tallula, 2761 Washington Blvd., Arlington, (703) 778-5051.—Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.