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Jacques Imperato, the proprietor of Mediterranee, is a thick, dark man with a gruff-chummy manner and command of at least two languages. He’s cagey: Just watch him soothe a near-livid woman who has arrived to find Table 10 occupied. That trophy table, he explains, which is partially secluded from the rest, rocks (I’m paraphrasing), and he can’t keep it open all night hoping for one customer to show. He’s familiar with the proclivities of repeat visitors; he remembers the wine I ordered on my last two visits. His restaurant has the folksy warmth of an Iowa farm house, and when French speakers arrive at his door, it’s kissy-poo city.
Like a classic French bistro, Mediterranee is neighborhood-y and completely unpretentious. (Sure, the waiters know wine, most of which is French and affordable, but plenty of customers order beer to lubricate meals of escargots and coquilles St. Jacques.) The hack who designed the place allowed for a lot of hallway and almost no wiggle room, but the restaurant makes do. The shrub garden out front stands defiant against Lee Highway, which runs so close to the front door it wouldn’t surprise me to find a Camaro in my bouillabaisse.
Although the rickety charm of Mediterranee sometimes recalls Peter Mayle’s Provence, its name is geographically vague for a reason. The cooking is Pied Noir, the name Algerians gave the black-booted Frenchmen who landed in their country in the 1830s. But as Mediterranee presents it, Pied Noir cuisine is less a jumble of fusion confusion than
The couscous oranais is a kind of North African cassouletwith the granular couscous supplanting white beans and African merguez in place of French sausageand it has a seafood-based cousin that easily trumps the house bouillabaisse. But most of the daily menu comprises Euro classics straight out of Cooking 101comfort food that predates meatloaf by centuries. Become a regular and you’ll discover that the kitchen’s not always on its game; the paella one night is so dry you’d think it had been waiting under a heat lamp since breakfast; but on another it’s silky-smooth, spilling over with fish that could sit proudly on a plate by itself.
Mediterranee’s food sits several rungs up the froufrou ladder from pommes frites and fried calamari, but still it’s more satiating than startling. That’s a compliment. The daube, for example, resembles nothing more than grandma’s beef stew, but it’s also perfect; simmered in red wine, the meat is stringy-soft and faintly tangy, and with just the slightest press of a fork, the root vegetables turn into a mash. The angel-hair pasta tossed in basil-flavored tomato sauce isn’t just a good option for vegetarians, it’s a dish too many Italian restaurants have quit bothering to get right. The house saladjust greens and mustard vinaigretteis so on the money that my friend who orders it (for dessert) is still talking about it (with strangers) hours later at the Black Cat (while the band’s playing). One of the best things on the menu is kemia, a $3.95 plate of, as the menu calls them, “tidbits”: Moroccan olives, pâté, spicy chorizo strips, and anchovy escabèche.
A refreshing appetizer of sliced cucumber and roasted pepper sauced with garlic-mint yogurt is about as wild as Mediterranee gets with fresh produce. One night my cod comes with a hollowed-out zucchini filled with eggplant baked so meltingly you could eat it with a straw, but regular entrees generally aren’t jazzed up with funky sidesdon’t expect more than a baked half-tomato and a tiny roasted spud. Which isn’t to say that Imperato doesn’t have an eye for good stuff; he’s probably just not the farmers’-market type.
If you’re looking for a whiff of high refinement, there are plenty of daily specials. Watercress soup is a smooth elixir sharpened with Parmesan. The rack of lamb isn’t merely tender; it’s soft. Seafood is arguably this kitchen’s strength. One night, plump scallops, shrimp, and clams come nestled in a red bed of beet risotto, all of it unified by a simple cream sauce. The soft-shell crab is similarly inspired, paired with toasted almonds and dried raisins. And although regular desserts like chocolate mousse and lemon crepes are better than textbook-quality, I’d pass up either for the special blueberry sorbet, which tastes as if it were scooped straight from some rare, arctic strain of bush.
Mediterranee’s regular crowd is a multilingual hodgepodge, neither Franco-exotic nor working-stiff ordinary; the prevailing vibe is practically middle-American. I’ve decided that Imperato was simply spent the night he seemed to stare us straight out of the place when we stayed past closing; he’s got a wife at home, for chrissakes, and on the way out, he slipped me a half-completed punch cardbuy 10 entrees, get one free. The restaurant’s economics are family-oriented; regular entree prices are in the low to mid-teensnot cheap, yet hardly ridiculous for what you getbut if you arrive between 5:30 and 7 p.m., the prix fixe menu is a steal at $14.95. You won’t find an upturned nose in the place, and scribbled in ink at the bottom of every check is the word “Merci.”
Mediterranee, 3520 Lee Highway, Arlington, (703) 527-7276.
Adams Morgan has become nearly as flush with Indian restaurants as it is with Ethiopian ones, and Jyoti might even stay a while. “I’ve been there five times already,” writes one reader who’s smitten with the patio and the exposed brick inside. I’m sweet on the vegetable dumplings submerged in a golden yogurt sauce and the mint-flecked naan, which is nice for dipping and can also double as a palate cleanser. And the waiters bring out platters of Indian pickles and chutneys without asking.
Jyoti Restaurant, 2433 18th St. NW, (202) 518-5892.
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