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Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld opens trendy nightspots the way Subway opens new franchises.
Ozio Martini and Cigar Lounge was the first of his concoctions, a latter-day speakeasy that capitalized on two of the biggest trends of the past decade. Since then, the Ecuadoran native has gone about endlessly recycling, and refining, his blueprint. Next came, in swift succession, the Chi-Cha Lounge on U Street, followed by Bambule, in Chevy Chase, and Gazuza, in Dupont Circle. That nobody knows exactly what to call these places—bar? restaurant? club? semicasual hangout?—is precisely their strength, the aura of a chic, genre-blurring haunt cleverly distracting you from the realization that you’re in, for all intents and purposes, a chain.
The latest Fraga-Rosenfeld venture is Gua-Rapo, at the end of a strip of modest-looking restaurants and stores in the Courthouse neighborhood of Arlington. Outwardly, the two-level nightspot is almost as nondescript as its fellow tenants. But once you’re inside, it’s difficult to miss the by-now-familiar Fraga-Rosenfeld touch: the omnipresent swirl of cigarette smoke, the vibrant-looking drinks that pack more punch than you’d expect, and, of course, the mix of ethnically diverse, blowing-off-steam yuppies kicking back in their comfy, oversized chairs and nodding along to a steady stream of techno and world music.
Oh, yes: and the small plates with the big, unsubtle flavors.
But the continuing success of the Fraga-Rosenfeld brand does not seem to be particularly dependent on what passes through his kitchens. The servers at Gua-Rapo know this better than anyone. On my third visit, a relatively quiet midweek night, our waitress was caught completely off guard when my table bypassed the list of drinks altogether and went ahead and ordered food. Granted, it was close to 9, but I couldn’t help but wonder, as her eyebrows lifted in surprise, if we had violated some unspoken code.
My friend Bill, who accompanied me on my first visit, describes the food as “tapas for drunk people.” This is not entirely right. These are not, strictly speaking, Spanish appetizers—the menu also looks for inspiration to Argentina, Mexico, and Peru. But Bill is mostly on target in suggesting that the extent to which you find the food appealing is in direct proportion to how inebriated you are.
The palate may recognize four distinct flavors—salty, sour, sweet, and bitter—but the kitchen at Gua-Rapo seems to acknowledge just two: salty and sweet. Given that the restaurant derives its name from a sugarcane juice popular in Latin America—which serves as the basis for no less than seven brightly colored cocktails—this sort of simplification makes sound business sense: The former triggers the desire to drink, and the latter is pretty much the only taste that consistently registers when you’re no longer possessed of all your faculties.
In fact, many of the best dishes here are either highly salty or impossibly sweet. The calamari salad, for example: The bed of lettuce over which the cornmeal-coated ringlets of squid are draped is dressed with an orangey vinaigrette and studded with thick slices of ripe banana—a far sweeter treatment of the happy-hour staple. But it works, the fruit and the sauce together accentuating the inherent sweetness of the squid. It helps, too, that the calamari are tender, not at all rubbery, and even pass the ultimate test of anything fried: They taste good when they get cold. The champinones—sauteed button mushrooms—are one of the saltiest items on the menu, but they, too, are one of the best. Doused in a blend of butter and wine and red and black peppers, they’re a reminder of what small plates are for: to deliver intense, mouth-awakening flavors in tiny doses.
And, should salty and sweet hook up, as they do in an empanada de queso, the result is a dish that’s satisfyingly complex. The blend of three cheeses—gouda, fontina, and “blue”—is just sharp enough to offset the buttery delicacy of the surrounding shell, a nifty pouch of puff pastry. By contrast, the empanada chilena—filled with a lightly spiced ground beef that’s studded with raisins—merely piles sweet atop sweet.
If you’re coming here to drink—or if you want to take your relaxation one step further and order up an arguileh, a brass water pipe of tobacco, for you and your friends, as a group of five at the adjoining table was doing one night—you’re probably not going to mind that, after you sample from among two or three plates, a certain sameness settles on your tongue. In fact, you’re probably not even going to notice: My hit-taking neighbors devoured the contents of their three plates in a matter of minutes.
But if you come with a group of three or four and want to drink and eat in equal measure, then you’re probably looking at as many as five or six dishes for the table. And that’s where you’re going to run into problems. The seviche comes on strong—a sharp burst of lime, a smoky back-taste of dried chipotle—but after just a few bites, the mayonnaisey vinaigrette begins to cloy. The bits of roast pork in the masitas de cerdo are dry, and the scattering of figs is hardly enough to warrant their being listed as an ingredient—a shame, too, because if there’s any dish that merits the additional tinge of sweetness, it’s this one. The tamale—there’s only the one, though the menu insists on calling it tamales—is undone by the dry chicken inside. The same goes for the disappointing del mar, whose dry chopped salmon filling ruins an otherwise acceptable pan-seared potato cake. And other than the calamari version, the salads look, and taste, as if they’d been rushed from the kitchen without finishing.
You can venture beyond the long list of small plates to the handful of entrees, but the kitchen’s weaknesses are only magnified on the larger scale. For all their marinade, the palitos de carne, one of three skewers of seasoned meats the menu lists, are surprisingly tough, and the bits of char on the edges of the meat cannot offset the salinity of the marinade. And don’t even bother with the chimichurri. Sometimes, this Argentinian relish—a mixture of chopped parsley, oregano, garlic, and olive oil—is so good I’ll keep eating long after I’ve had my fill. The version here is so briny I abandoned it after just a couple of bites. The black paella, which packs more chorizo than it does seafood and serves up rice of an almost risottolike consistency, is far more than just salty—my lips were numb for hours afterward.
If the place is packed, as it frequently is, you’d probably be better off just having a plate or two at a time. Or maybe just a plate or two, period. Or skipping the food altogether and sticking to the drinks. Order up one of the seven guarapo drinks—”thought by some,” the menu notes, “to be an aphrodisiac.” Groove to the techno. Take in some Rugrats on the widescreen TV. Or chill on the couches upstairs. Catch up with your friends on the week that was. Have a smoke—whatever. Mood, color, sound, relaxants. What more could you want? Don’t ask.
Gua-Rapo, 2039 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. (703) 528-6500. —Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.