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A high-end restaurant in the heart of a business district is always in danger of seeming two-faced. Midday is when such a restaurant shines. The atmosphere feels compressed, and the food has to be good or someone’s going to hear about it. At night it’s a different place, drained of the noon hour’s energy, crowd, and self-importance. It’s a difficult problem to avoid no matter how good the food is: Who wants to have dinner where they work?
El Catalán, a new restaurant located about a block from Metro Center, has managed to overcome some of that nighttime droopiness, yet it still has a split personality. If you don’t notice that the restaurant is busier and runs more efficiently at lunch, or that during dinner the dining room is so bare that it’s tempting to test for an echo, it’s probably because you’re too busy admiring how sexy the place is.
If you’re seated facing the row of massive, blue-trimmed mirrors lining one wall, the restaurant seems to go on for a block, an elegant corridor of arches, dark wood, and earthy shades of orange and red. When you walk in, there’s shattered tile wherever you lookin the entryway, where tile and shards of broken plates create a blue swirl on the wall, or in the front room, where gold tile pieces cover an enormous post and orange fragments color the bar. Separating the main dining room from the kitchen in the back and the bar in the front are rows of hip-high wood partitions, curves of bent metal, and door frames, but no walls. Like Cafe Atlantico or maybe Red Sage, El Catalán is the kind of flashy downtown restaurant where even the people dressed in business gray look as if they might know how to dance.
When it’s on, the kitchen taps into its own compelling rhythms. The tapas-heavy menu (at lunch, that’s all that’s offered) is dominated by burly, strong-flavored dishes that are best served in small portions. Many of the finest touches are partially hiddenthe plump chunks of chorizo in the white bean stew, the cod puree stuffed into the roasted sweet red pepper, the garlic mousseline obscured by roasted monkfish. Other successes, such as the octopus stew with potatoes or the roasted shrimp, are memorable if only for being such accommodating vehicles for garlic. The mushroom soup is so garlicky and full-flavored that we rhapsodize about how well it would perform spooned over a thick cut of meat.
But Catalán is at its best when the kitchen bares its sweet tooth. (And I’m not talking about the creme Catalán, an ultrasugary rendition of crème brûlée that leaves us wishing we’d gone somewhere else for dessert.) Touches of fruit go a long way toward distinguishing several dishes. In the swordfish tapas, a few raisins are mixed with pine nuts; dry yellow figs slightly sweeten the gravy in the duck stew (an entree at dinner, tapas during lunch); twists of orange peel invigorate the beef rib stew entree. Best of all is a mixture of prawns, chicken, and almonds flavored with saffron and just enough chocolate to remind you that what’s beloved as a sweet can behave as a spice and, in the absence of sugar, isn’t very sweet at all.
The boon of eating tapas is, of course, being able to really indulge yourself. But if you’re moved by the spirit of sampling at El Catalán, be wary of shellfish. The gratin of mussels we order on our first visit is hopelessly chewy; it establishes a pattern. The clams that cover a slice of eggplant (served only during lunch) are plagued by the same problem. We leave behind a plate of mostly untouched shells from the paella, wishing it came with more rice. Catalán also isn’t very friendly toward vegetarians. Sometimes the menu just lacks specificity, as in the “fricassee of artichoke with green olives and manchego cheese” and the previously mentioned monkfish, both of which arrive with unannounced slices of prosciutto. In fact, if you’re an unbending veggie, the zucchini cake with cheese and perhaps the mushroom soup (although I can’t get a straight answer about its broth) are the only safe items offered at dinner.
You would also think that such a visually elegant restaurant would provide service to match. If you’re not up on Spanish wine, don’t look to the staff for any guidance. “Everything is excellent,” our waiter tells us when we ask him to recommend something. On our first visit, the hostess leads us to a corner table that already has people sitting at it and then just stands there as if she has forgotten where she is. The rest of the restaurant is literally empty, so we just pick a spot and leave her to deal with whatever she’s got to deal with. When I ask a question about the house bread, a crusty sourdough so intense it’s sweet, the waiter responds, “I have no idea,” and retires to the bar to smoke. But once I finish my meal, a host fawns over me, noting that my shirt matches the decor and says, as he follows me to the street outside, “You look like you belong.” As I said, two-faced.
El Catalan, 1319 F St. NW. (202) 628-2299.
One reader, a Howard student, seeks better dinner options. “I’m seriously gonna die from all the fast food I eat,” he says. One saving grace, he offers, is the Rice House. “The place gives me the willies, but they have this rice with dill in it that I’ve been eating a lot.” The willies he speaks of probably stem from the Rice House itself, a dank hole in the wall that reminds me of a bait shop. The joint is sparsea steam table, a drink cooler, and a few rickety places to sit. The chicken I order is tough and not very warm. I agree with the guy on the rice, but he’s probably right when he says, “I don’t think I can live on that stuff.”
Rice House, 2604 Georgia Ave. NW. No phone number available.Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.