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The more time I spend relegated to Tavira’s bar, the more I believe that the act of waiting is supposed to be part of the restaurant’s pleasure package. The hostess’s perennial greeting (“If you’d like to just take a seat at the bar…”) is always terribly pleasant, but “taking” a bar stool generally feels more like being deposited in one. On two occasions, we belly up to emptied cocktail glasses and dirty ashtrays that never get cleared. Bartenders are so hard to come by that we once ask a nearby waiter if he might fetch us some wine. He passes the buck to someone else, who, it turns out, can’t fulfill our order (he also can’t find us a menu), but he knows someone who might be able to help us. That someone never shows.
Abject neglect may occasionally bolster the ambiance of a rusted-out diner, but it does little to aid Tavira’s cause. The restaurant clearly isn’t positioned in Chevy Chase to cater to some previously overlooked near-the-Beltway underbelly. On the contrary, this is the type of place where you can overhear semiretired men bragging about $65,000 hunting rifles, or lunching ladies discussing Philip Roth as if he were a former lover.
The template for Tavira seems pretty promising. Started by alumni of Jean-Louis and El Catalan, the restaurant brings Portuguese cuisine to an area far from overrun by it. The food’s expensive, but not unreasonably so. The dining rooms are prim, formal, and quite a bit more interesting than you might expect when walking through the bank lobby en route to the basement where they sit. The plates have the hand-painted look of imported goods. The stemware sparkles. On two occasions, I don’t even need to fuss with my napkin: The host places it in my lap for me.
If Tavira could somehow stay in business serving only its shellfish appetizers, Portu-philia could feasibly turn into a local phenomenon. Mussels arrive inside a copper vessel that splits open like a Hanna-Barbera flying saucer; the upper half becomes an empty shell bowl, which you’ll have no problem filling. The fleshy mussels are cooked and subtly flavored by a sauce that just keeps giving: peppers of various colors, tomatoes stewed to near-liquid, and the tang of white wine. The clams are even bolder: richened with ham, chorizo, and enough garlic to supply a slingshot battle against an army of vampires. It wouldn’t be out of line to request to have any uneaten brew boxed up for tomorrow’s pasta, but I never do so myself.
None of our other starters even approach the sublimity of Tavira’s bivalves. Potato-and-kale soup is thin and totally vague; my serving contains exactly one piece of the advertised sausage. What the menu enticingly describes as a shrimp-stuffed “pastry” turns out to be a pump-and-fake; they’re fritters, really, and not very good ones: four browned blobs of unflaky dough that contain barely enough shrimp to mention. A lunch salad of shaved iceberg, hearts of palm, and simply cooked shrimp is much better, fresh-tasting and light. The same might be said of the sauteed shrimp served at dinner, but this kitchen has a habit of tossing sliced garlic around as though it were pure sustenance, like a nut; the garlic’s all we taste.
Tavira’s cooking can be compellingly rustic and simple. Bacalhau a braz is unapologetic comfort food: a hash of stripped potatoes, salt cod, egg, and onion flecked with parsley. Lamb chops come crisp and ruddy, redolent of rosemary. Bife a Portuguesa is basically steak and eggs worthy of good wine. And the grilled chicken is dynamite: Crisp and moist in a spicy pepper glaze, the whole young bird is splayed against of pile of homemade potato chips, each crunchy sliver its own shade of brown.
“Simple” also aptly describes arroz Valenciana, but not in a good way; it’s basically paella in need of love, a rice dish with a lot of stuff in it but no real flavor. Shades more exciting—and a lot more weird—is a Portuguese specialty of seafood stewed in bread. The exciting part is that the seafood is cooked to a turn. The weird part is the bread, which is so soupy-soft it makes Cream of Wheat seem chewy. A delicious-sounding pork dish turns out to be a head-scratcher: Cubes of dry pork, a few clams, potatoes, and lots of (yes) garlic all swim in an orangey oil that’s not unlike the stuff you find atop truck-stop chili. It’s the kind of thing I’d gladly eat again at a dive in Lisbon—but not over a white tablecloth with a bottle of wine in the basement of a bank in Chevy Chase.
What ultimately makes dinner at Tavira feel more endurable than enjoyable is that its flaws are more consistent than its food. The nonservice at the bar turns into slow service at the table. The black, tasteless olives that first appear next to our shrimp “pastries” show up on almost everything we order. In reciting the desserts, the waiter mentions an “orange tart.” It’s a plate of oranges soaked in Grand Marnier and surrounded by soft strips of cake—very good, but hardly what the waiter sold. And the place itself, elegant as it is, never really transcends its cubicle-drone address. Looking into an adjacent dining room one night, we can hardly believe our eyes. It’s getting to be 9 p.m., and the people are listening to someone who, with the aid of an overhead projector, is clearly giving some kind of presentation: a dinner meeting, Tavira-style.
Tavira, 8401 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase, (301) 652-8684.
Several readers have recently asked if I’ve tried the “new Jaleo.” I can’t think of anyone who hasn’t eaten at Jaleo, which certainly isn’t new. But I don’t mind going back. If there’s anything new to report about the restaurant, it’s that chef Jose Andres has been in the kitchen more or less full time since leaving Cafe Atlantico, and the restaurant’s never been better. A special stew of baby lamb, potatoes, and rice is a delicious, fresh-from-the-boutique-farm cold chaser. I’m still a freak for the sausages, and while eating a salad of frisee, smoked tuna, olives, eggs, and anchovies, I can’t help but tell myself that this is why God invented bread and wine. What’s more, the list of sherries comes complemented by a staff that actually knows what the stuff is.
Jaleo, 480 7th St. NW, (202) 628-7949. —Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.