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Before Carmella Kitty’s, the Cajun restaurant on 17th Street, closed its doors last summer, it ranked among my favorite restaurants in town. The food was decent, in particular a savagely flavorful meatloaf that erased the desire for more traditional versions. Carmella Kitty’s was tucked into a covey of nice restaurants huddled around 17th and Q NW. The place was, and is, gorgeous. It’s a former town house set off in stately red brick that has the makings of a fine little embassy. Much as this sounds like an insult, the best part about dining at Carmella Kitty’s was waiting for a table in the incredibly funky downstairs bar.

On my first visit to the Mercury Grill, which sprang up in Kitty’s place, I’m told that it could be 20 minutes before a table opens, but the guy doesn’t know for sure; it’s his first day. I tell him we want to sit outside. He says that will take even longer, maybe 45 minutes. “Whatever,” I say. “We’ll be downstairs.”

The basement bar is tiny and usually crowded, though there always seem to be a couple of vacant stools. The walls used to be a midnight blue, a hue that did wonders for intimacy and made the place feel like a smoke-filled cave; emerging for dinner was like waking from hibernation. The Mercury Grill people have painted the bar’s walls white and altered the glow a bit. My friend is angered by the slight renovation, in particular the twee, Christmasy lights with their precious lampshades. “They’re so cute you just wanna smash them all,” she says. I admit to hardly noticing the changes. “That’s so guy,” my friend accuses. Even with the “improvements” it still ranks as my preferred public hiding spot in D.C.

Besides, Mercury Grill’s internationally informed American food is worth the wait and then some. For nine months I’ve searched for potatoes grated like cheese, fried crisp, and served with a bottle of Heinz’s finest. Never mind about the ketchup, Mercury Grill’s potato pancake is an edible dream, with strips of smoked salmon and a lemon crème fraîche. It’s a hash-brown experiment worthy of a patent. High- and lowbrow meet again in the beer-steamed clams, which are garnished with leeks, apples, and shiitake mushrooms. Credit the cornmeal crust for making the calamari just crunchy enough and the lemon, ginger, and soy dipping sauce for making the octopi better than most. The peppered duck breast (at $8 the most expensive appetizer) is sliced thin, and the slices are placed like spokes around a crisp risotto cake hub; its delicious aroma is the one we noted permeating the bar when we arrived. And some cold scallops that have been rotated in as a nightly special are well served by couscous and accompanying minty glaze.

If you put them in a lineup, you probably wouldn’t guess most of Mercury Grill’s salads were salads. One friend comments that the roasted corn and crab napoleon looks like an Asian temple, with crisp wanton skins serving as the main structural feature, and a tangy roasted-pepper vinaigrette covering it like a cool rain. The spinach salad is served warm, with pungent goat cheese half-melting into the pile of wrinkled leaves. The endive and radicchio serve more as a garnish in the roasted beef salad, which is mostly beef, but all ingredients play second fiddle to the balsamic vinaigrette, which is so pulpy with roasted garlic that you are confronted with the choice of having to chew the dressing ferociously or choking. And God knows how the Grill found fresh pears for the field greens salad, but it’s a succulent marvel—if you’re in the mood for greens, it’s the salad to order. In this company, the sun-dried tomato Caesar ranks as a poor relation.

Mercury Grill’s entrees lack some of the starters’ flair; I’d actually recommend ordering whatever looks good from the appetizer and salad parts of the menu and then taking stock of whether there’s room for anything else. If you’ve got the stamina, the payoff lies in the sauces. The pork medallions and the cornmeal-crusted salmon each come with a sauce good enough to drink, the former a slightly sweet cider mignonette and the latter a mustard-seed vinaigrette. The balsamic glaze smeared over the tender grilled-beef medallions is a denser, less garlicky rendition of what comes with the beef salad. The medium-rare tuna is accompanied by roasted jalapeño salsa, more smoky than hot, and a rich black bean sauce.

In the midst of falling in love while sloshing a hunk of mahi-mahi around in a pool of orange-flavored juice, I realize I had a crush on Carmella Kitty’s because of the way the it looked; now that Mercury Grill has taken over, I like the way the place tastes, too.

Mercury Grill, 1602 17th St. NW. (202) 667-5937.

Hot Plate:

“I’ve eaten at this place three times, and each time it’s just been very, very enjoyable,” says one reader, echoing the opinion of a couple of others. Though no one mentions the ambience, I gather diners aren’t taken by Capitol Chicken because of the atmosphere—it doesn’t have any. The dining area is like what you’d expect from the lunch room in an office tower—carpeting, ugly pictures on the wall, elevator music. But if you’re downtown and can’t afford to eat hip at lunch and can’t deal with fast food, the chicken here is almost like homemade, especially the rotisserie, and it’s cheap—about five bucks with a choice of two sides. It’s an honest bargain, made even more honest by the people who work there. Once, after inadvertently overcharging me for my meal, the guy went out of his way to hunt me down and give me my money. I didn’t even know it was missing.

Capitol Chicken, 920 14th St. NW. (202) 347-4901.

—Brett Anderson

Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to banderson@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.