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I know it’s wrong to start with dessert, but if you tried the rhubarb soup at Ardeo I’m sure you’d understand. What we’ll call the broth is a mint-sharpened elixir that falls somewhere between cherry Sno-Kone syrup and Chablis, and if the restaurant decided to put the stuff on tap I bet it’d make a killing. Maybe I’m on an unlucky streak, but I’ve been so unmoved by the fruit flavors in restaurants this summer that I’ve taken to skipping the dessert course altogether to save my appetite for a fresh peach at home. But this rhubarb thing is both as harsh and sweet as the season, and the jiggly mound of mango mousse floating in it is so luxuriant I’m tempted to rub it on my skin.
Such moments of pleasure are common at Ardeo, which is located in Cleveland Park. A year ago, those two facts together would have been newsworthy enough for the front page. But the business community around the Uptown Theater has changed so much over the past year or so that the area doesn’t even feel like Cleveland Park anymore. The gentrification was slow but inevitable: Popcorn qualifies as dinner only up to a certain age, and some of those moviegoers were bound to have good credit. When Coppi’s moved in, its lines were as long as the Uptown’s, and Greenwood has been such a hit that its staff doesn’t even need to be nice. On weekend nights, the crowds flowing through the neighborhood resemble Adams Morgan’s, minus the fake IDs.
Restaurantwise, Ardeo is Cleveland Park’s crown jewel (at least until Lavandou finishes renovating). The restaurant’s proprietor, Ashok Bajaj, also runs Bombay Club, 701, and the Oval Room, and I’m glad that with his newest venture he didn’t try to duplicate one of his downtown ego-hangars. Not that Ardeo is cheapdoing it right costs at least 50 bucks a head. (Skip all the extras and you can get out for about $30.) But like Cashion’s in Adams Morgan, Ardeo is more cozy than swank, and the clientele is diverse in that white, Northwest Washington way. In other words, the hostess won’t seat you in Siberia just because you don’t use a dry cleaner.
But Ardeo’s appeal is hardly just atmospheric. The head man in the kitchen is David Nugent, whose résumé includes stints at Restaurant Nora and Napa Valley’s French Laundry (which, for what it’s worth, is considered by a lot of food mafiosi to be the finest restaurant in the country). Nugent’s menu is “New American” in that its dishes come from everywhere and nowhere in particular. Rack of lamb, for instance, shares a plate with vegetable egg rolls. And while the menu changes fairly regularly, it’s possible to pick favorites and taste them as they evolve. One night, the diver scallops served as an appetizer are bedded in truffled corn ragout and dressed in chive oil; the next they’re coupled with red pepper coulis and salsify-potato puree. Every time I’ve visited, linguine with artichokes, olives, and fresh basil is finished with a crustacean, be it plump Santa Barbara spot prawn or sweet Gulf shrimp.
Seafood is, indeed, the kitchen’s forte. Cod comes sheathed in a crisp potato crust and sauced with what amounts to the best clam chowder I’ve tasted since the last time it really snowed in D.C. Sake-marinated sea bass is fragrant and light, surrounded by seaweed consommé, bok choy, and yuzu sticky rice. The night I order steamed halibut, I do so figuring it will bomb. But the fish’s unlikely support team of casaba melon, watermelon, Key lime essence, and lemon grass nage enhances the dish instead of taking it over. The scallop ceviche, which I find on the menu only once, would be too tart if it weren’t cleverly toned down with smoked salmon and set in a gorgeous jungle of wild greens. The one time I find Nugent getting too cutesy is the night I order the tea-smoked salmon partnered with beet risotto and pommery mustard sauce, which is just as disorienting as it sounds.
Nugent’s success ratio goes down a touch when he goes ashore. An otherwise good-looking vegetable lasagna is overcooked and tastes of the oven; and while the pepper-crusted ribeye is flavorful, it’s also tough. Yet no such problem plagues the tender, dictionary-thick pork chop, which is tastefully topped off with a wild berry compote and oyster mushroom fricassee. And pulled smoked chicken is used creatively as the base of a refreshingly tart salad.
If you’re just in for a snack, it’s worth stopping at the bar for a heaping appetizer of beer-steamed mussels, which are only $5.50. You’ll be sitting prettier than everyone upstairs, which could use a carpet to cut the noise; and the first-floor dining room, where Ardeo’s bar sits, is quietly seductive even when it’s overflowing. Ignore the paintings (my friend likes to say they come from the “’70s-bachelor-pad” school) and enjoy the discreet lighting, the chatty bartenders, and the calculated use of blond wood that makes the whole place feel twice as big as it really is. And as you’re eating, try to recall if you’ve tasted better fruits of the bull market than this.
Ardeo, 3311 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 244-6750.
Crab cakes are ubiquitous around here, so I long ago vowed not to play the game of picking a favorite unless someone with a gun demands that I do so. “The crab cakes at Eastern Market are wonderful, the best in D.C.,” writes one reader, referring to what’s served at Market Lunch, which is located inside Eastern Market. I’m not playing the game, but I will agree with “wonderful.” Crispness and high crab content are essentials for greatness, and to go along with that, Market’s cakes are bolstered by the hot and greasy vibe of the restaurant itself, which manages to be more dineresque than most diners I can think of. Too bad it’s not open after dark.
Market Lunch, 225 7th St. SE, (202) 547-8444.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.