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Few restaurants not in amusement parks or shopping malls are as high concept as Cities. Other eateries may modify their menus from time to time, but Cities jumps in and out of cooking styles as if they were party dresses. It’s an ambitious and ostensibly foolproof plan. Allowing itself to cater to the tastes of a fickle public, Cities positions itself so as never to go out of style.
At least that seems to be the idea. The old Cities, despite serving consistently fine food unique to various regions of the world, most recently Italy, practically asked to be avoided. Full of itself for all the wrong reasons, Cities became more a cheesy nightclub than a cutting-edge restaurant. It was so garish and self-consciously hip that even people who appreciate such traits couldn’t be tempted inside. The supposedly ageless restaurant needed a face lift.
Or better yet, full reconstructive surgery. The new and old Cities are similar only in name. You don’t have to go inside the new place to take in the change. There are no doorsno street-side wall, reallyjust three arches, each nearly one story high, that open the place up to the sidewalk. The mood in the bar is active and social (all right, it’s a meat market) while the dining room, aglow with light from the fireplace, couldn’t be more serene. The entire restaurant is unified by a spare, classic design that has been subjected to small tremors of future shock. Wooden chairs are sheathed in white canvas covers that look like straitjackets. Miniature versions of the long, cylindrical lights that hang from the ceiling stick up from the bar like radioactive cocktails. There’s no longer a dance floor, or even a second level. By most anyone’s standards the renovated restaurant is tastefully with-it. “I can’t believe this is Cities,” a friend says as she plops down in one of the half-circle booths that line one wall in the bar.
What’s harder to believe on our first visit is that Cities could be shut down, thoroughly gutted, and reopened seemingly without missing a beat. The cuisine of the moment is Mediterranean, and the location of the season is Istanbul. When we arrive three weeks after Cities’ grand reopening, everything we eat suggests that the restaurant has had years to perfect its craft.
To start, we order a plate of parsley-and-feta-stuffed phyllo-dough triangles, a rich, herby treat that is wonderful with the olives that are brought to every table along with a plate of focaccia. Swordfish, served as an entree, is cubed, grilled rare on a skewer with vegetables, and tastes as if it was raised to be eaten with saffron rice and a squirt of lemon. The grilled salmon is equally great, although it is outshone by the black-olive mashed potatoesa spud masterstroke I hope becomes a trend. Best of all is a roasted chicken with foie gras, pancetta, and shiitake mushrooms. The meat is gloriously juicy, oozing a stream of flavors we can’t quite place. “Sage, rosemary, and thyme” says our waitress, prompting several bad Simon and Garfunkel jokes.
The quality of that first meal gets us to wondering how Cities has done it. Our waitress tells us that Cities’ ownership is actually from Istanbul and that the chef specializes in the current cuisine, which explains the natural shift from Italian to Mediterranean. But the old staff, for the most part, was not kept on during the renovation. “Everyone is basically a fresh hire,” our waitress says, which explains what transpires on later visits.
Cities does show signs of its newfound youth. The weather has been erratic, for example, making the open front a liability, although some powerful space heaters are proving surprisingly effective. Also, the wait staff has yet to find a groove, especially when the restaurant is crowded. On one Friday in particular, our waiter is nice but laughably inept. After bringing our wine, it takes him half an hour to return to take our order. His timing never improves. Coffee takes 25 minutes. We could have eaten a three-course meal in the time it takes him to bring the check. A waitress on a later visit is only slightly more attentive.
All would be forgiven, of course, if the food were as good as it was at the first meal. The salads and appetizers are generally delightful, in particular an almost creamy salt cod mousse, a flawless wild mushroom risotto with sage and truffle oil, and the foie-gras-and-portobello skewers. But the bulk of the entrees we order are no better composed than the people who deliver them.
Given the restaurant’s transition from Italian, it’s inexcusable for it to now serve bland pasta (although I’ll admit we never tried the capellini with lobster). The pizza’s no better. A grossly overseasoned herb pizza tastes as if it has been used to sponge up the mess made by an overturned spice rack. “It’s like eating potpourri,” says my friend. The rockfish fillet is similarly botched, encrusted with so much sea salt that it’s inediblea careless mistake that should never have left the kitchen. Only the pureed roasted eggplant, seasoned with cheese and nutmeg and served with lamb and tomato stew, is a mindblower, a brief respite that reminds me of our first visit.
There’s no denying that Cities is now the best-looking restaurant in Adams Morgan; it’s more spacious than Cashion’s and more visually stunning than I Matti. The kitchen has even shown some signs that it can produce cuisine worthy of the setting. The trick for Cities will be maturing before it’s time for another change.
Cities, 2424 18th St. NW. (202) 328-7194.
A reader likens La Copa to a neighborhood “community center.” The description is fitting. The dining area resembles a rec room decorated for a birthday party, complete with streamers, paper stars, and posters of pop stars and cartoon characters. It’s charming, in its way, and on weekends, when a band plugs in to play covers of Latino pop songs, La Copa plays host to one vivacious dance party. The music’s not really my thing; neither is the “bread cutlet” sandwich I order from the Argentine menu. But I’m definitely in the minority.
La Copa Restaurant, 5171 Lee Hwy., Arlington. (703) 536-1884.Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.