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Cafe Monti is beautiful in many ways. Classical music wafts from the sound system. An utterly decadent chocolate cake is always there, under glass, to greet customers on the way in, with slivers of hard milk chocolate curled on its surface. A table displaying three delectable tarts one night—pear, blueberry, raspberry—holds trays of uncut apple strudel another. Daily specials are scrawled on a board in a barely legible script, but the simple descriptions are more than enough to entice you into a stageside seat: Manicotti. Salmon in shallot butter. Prosciutto and melon.
Linguine with clams. Goulash.
That said, it should be noted that Cafe Monti is also, in many ways, quite ugly. The sound system is really a rinky-dink boom box, which sits on a shelf just above a stock of bagged snack chips. The chocolate cake shares cooler space with beer bottles. The strudel
and tarts rest on a table just behind the cash register, where you place your order. The stageside seats? Well, they’re all stageside seats, unless you happen to get stuck at Table 12, which you’ll find en route to the bathroom in what can fairly be described as a supply closet.
Cafe Monti sits precariously on a steep incline along Duke Street, right next door to a discount mattress store. It’s the kind of place where napkin dispensers count as table settings, travel posters serve as wall art, and diners are asked to retrieve and bus their own utensils. This is low-overhead family dining at its most extreme. If a pizza-delivery operation were to take over the space, the new owner might just see fit to renovate before reopening.
As it is, Monti did change ownership last year, and it’s never been better. The restaurant has long been known as one of the only local purveyors of Austrian cuisine, and, indeed, the Austrian goulash, served as a soup but also as an entree, with big, dense bread dumplings, is a draw. As is the Wiener schnitzel, which is surprisingly delicate and, one night, acts as the topic of table conversation for a family of five seated nearby. The selection of wheat beers, brewed just outside the French city of Strasbourg, is decent. But Austria, with its history of expanding and shrinking empires, has appropriated as many cuisines as it has countries; Monti’s menu mostly comprises traditional Italian fare.
My first meal under the new ownership begins with a salad that is everything I look for in a Caesar: The dressing’s relatively thin and not too cheesy, with a heavier anchovy kick than a garlic one, and the whole thing is tossed just before delivery, ensuring maximum crunch. Lately, the specials list has been featuring a twist on a classic dish, pairing sliced raw tomatoes with goat cheese instead of the familiar fresh mozzarella, and the more flavorful cheese nicely compensates for the lack of depth in the juicy but out-of-season tomatoes. The kitchen churns out some very good onion rings—which, I notice, people order with pasta as well as with subs—but zucchini is by far the best thing to come out of Monti’s fryer. Every spear is a pleasure, squirted with lemon, dipped in warm marinara, and layered in a flaky batter that gives way to a firm, wet center.
Like any classic Italian red-sauce joint, Monti aims for its food to please, not stun. The pizza’s a waste of time—too little sauce, not enough browning, and a crust that belongs back on the drawing board. And it’s a mystery to me why the kitchen cooks fresh green beans, a common accompaniment to the nonpasta entrees, to a canned-like mushiness.
But those are my only quibbles. A thick slice of delicious country bread, crusty and hot, comes plopped atop nearly every order—an especially nice feature if you’re facing a plate of generously sauced meat lasagna or overstuffed manicotti. Veal is pounded tender and thin and covered in a perfectly pitched Marsala reduction—sweet but not syrupy. Mussels marinara and linguine with clams both come rimmed with plump, fresh-tasting shellfish, and the tomato-topped, herb-scented mahi mahi is basically an expense-account item without the pretension.
Once you’ve eaten at Monti, it’s not hard to understand why its owners haven’t bothered to gussy up the place or, at the very least, introduce proper table service. Nearly all of the entrees are under $10, and the regulars who stream in and out clearly understand that they’re onto something—good food tastes great when it costs this little. And, regardless, some of the trappings of fine dining seep through the peeling paint: One night, a Mercedes-driving power player, undoubtedly a regular, breezes in and asks for whatever the chef recommends. On another night, I notice an old woman staring at me. I’m eating tomatoes and goat cheese, and she keeps at it long enough that I can’t help but stare back. “It’s wonderful,” she says, gesturing at my plate. “Isn’t it?”
Cafe Monti, 3250 Duke St., Alexandria, (703) 370-3632.
Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar changed for the better when Michael Chmar took over its kitchen last year. One Bay-area transplant echoes the sentiments of several other readers when she calls it “the only worthwhile restaurant in town for true California cuisine.” It’s hard to imagine better beef satay, tender as can be and propped over a crisp Asian salad, but seafood is the restaurant’s forte. My rockfish oozes juices, and what the menu calls a crust is actually a crunchy sprinkling of toasted garlic and diced potato. As always, the wines are fabulous, especially on the high end. So do as our San Francisco friend suggests and bring “someone with a wallet.”
Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar, 2917 M St. NW, (202) 333-2912.
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