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Can a salad make you warm? The question persists in part because the bathroom at the Iota Cafe is so cold it induces shrinkage; both my date and I decide to hold it. But, more important, our bodies are reacting to the salad as if it’s soup. Beneath a cover of greens, steam issues from an assortment of roasted vegetablesbeets, squash, zucchinithat have a stick-to-the-ribs heartiness, and their flavor is cut with near-scientific perfection by chunks of olive and a light raspberry-mint vinaigrette. It’s quite exquisite, completely wintry, and entirely unexpected coming from a place heretofore known mostly for providing music fans with a safe place to look sloppy and smoke.
Despite sharing a name, kitchen, and roof with the Iota Club, the Iota Cafe is, in fact, a restaurant. Period. No Space Age soundproofing is needed to divert attention from the club next door; the two Iotas share an address but little traffic. I never notice that a band’s playing on the other side of the wall while I’m eating, because I’m never given reason to care.
Size-wise, the Cafe is a hole in the wall, but its creators have managed to build an inviting atmosphere out of practically nothing. Space concerns are addressed by a row of church pews that make squishing in a big group more practical, and a wall of mirrors (not a mirrored wall) tastefully opens up the narrow room. The ambiance is neither naturalas the space isn’t charming on its ownnor labored. There are whimsical knickknacksa just-for-looks table set above the entrance, a cellobut not so many that the dining room is cluttered like a thrift store. And the multicolored walls soothe along with the stereo: Finally, a serious restaurateur has discovered that Massive Attack creates genius mood music.
Club-affiliated restaurants are notorious for assuming that good lighting is the secret to everything, including food. Iota Cafe is different; the salad’s not an aberration. Granted, the food’s ambitious enough that I plan for it to suck before I even try it. Who wouldn’t be suspicious of pan-seared quail with polenta timbale delivered in such close proximity to amplifiers? But chef Laura Ewen is no trendy hack. The quail, succulent in a mushroom-rosemary glaze, is just one of several Iota dishes that almost any local kitchen would be proud to serve.
Ewen manages to specialize without committing to any one cuisine type by keeping the selection short and sweet; the staff is reluctant to push any dishes too hard because the one-page menu doesn’t allow room for much filler. The entrees range from Caribbean (jerk pork tenderloin) to north African (chicken b’steeya), but you’ll never leave feeling as if you’ve just been on a grating tour of the small world. The b’steeya, a stuffed-pastry dish sprinkled with powdered sugar, is flaky, filled with a moist, savory-sweet filling of chicken, egg, and Moroccan spices; the pork is fork-tender and nearly outshone by a delicious mound of white-bean confit. Eclecticism isn’t the objective with this food. Ewen simply chooses whatever dishes she thinks are good.
Nothing on this menu is likely to entice clubgoers from next door to drop in for a snack. The white-bean puree is the only thing the Cafe offers that might qualify as munchies, and it’s only given to those who sit down for dinner, which can be costly. The appetizers are all under eight bucks, but none qualify as a meal; shrimp dumplings are intriguing in a puddle of scallion broth, and I’m a sucker for the chorizo and grilled shrimp, but neither will leave you full enough to ignore the entrees. Granted, the dishes aren’t necessarily overpriced; the bluefish Provençal, on which the tomatoes and basil sauce taste sweet against an avalanche of capers and olives, is worth the $17.50. But the food is not flawless, either: The toughness hasn’t been cooked out of the meat in the boeuf borguignon I’m served one night; the grit in my pile of braised vegetables and saffron rice tells me that the accompanying mussels could’ve used a better shower; the coconut cake is far from moist.
Given that the cafe is such a pleasant surprise, its kitchen’s infrequent missteps are easy to excuse. Still, I can’t help thinking that, in the spirit of filling up the dining room, Ewen could throw a few bones to the built-in audience next door; the Cafe’s still young, but it’ll have a tough time reaching adulthood if I and three other people are the only ones eating there during prime time on a Thursday night.
On the other hand, change might just disrupt the cafe’s charm: After three visits, I do notice that the contrast between the club and the restaurant isn’t as stark as it seems on the surface. There’s definitely a whiff of do-it-yourself nonchalance in the service, which is bartender-friendly and very refreshing. Shane Jennings, who acts as waiter, host, and wine guy, has the kind of soothing demeanor that promises a second career doing television voice-overs. Perhaps creating a successful, club-aligned restaurant isn’t all about style and synergy; perhaps it’s simply a matter of taste.
Iota Cafe, 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 522-8340.
“More is more,” says one reader, extolling the abundance at Roy’s Place, a restaurant where the list of sandwiches is so long that it peddles its menu as a souvenir. If he’s talking about selection, it’s hard to argue with the guy; just coming up with 200-odd sandwiches suggests a passion for volume that’s worthy of praise. The problem is more is not always more when it comes to placing food between bread; I don’t need to try the sandwich of tongue, shrimp salad, ham, lettuce, tomato, bacon, and sour cream-mayo-chili-horseradish sauce to know it’s not any good. I’ll take the knockwurst plain, thanks.
Roy’s Place, 2 E. Diamond Ave., Gaithersburg. (301) 948-5548.
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