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Be wary of pretty food. Like a person who’s perpetually overdressed, food that’s fun to look at can be compensating for something—most commonly, a profound lack of substance. I’ve always been dubious of the remark that customarily accompanies a meal resembling neon sculpture: “Well, this looks too good to eat.” No doubt restaurants are privy to the instinctual response diners have to presentation. I suspect there are some chefs who secretly hope that patrons will actually refrain from eating and take their meal home as a decoration, perhaps displaying it under glass.
But stylishly prepared food does have some redeeming qualities. For example, one look at King Pepper’s plate of sea scallops, which suggests a blown-up swatch of paisley fabric, and you know that the kitchen, which strives to make meals resemble art, isn’t afraid to experiment.
King Pepper, which opened in Old Town four months ago, is long on concept. The basis for all of its dishes is to include, of course, peppers of various types. Upstairs, there’s a bar and a stage, which on some nights hosts live comedy or music. When there’s no dinnertime action upstairs, a pianist plays quietly by the downstairs entrance. Like many new restaurants, Pepper displays original art on its walls, the paintings apparently changing regularly. (An X-Files freak I know is disappointed that the pictures depicting alien abductions that she’d seen on one visit have since been replaced. No word yet on whether or not Cancer Man had anything to do with the paintings’ removal.) Flyers advertise an upcoming art show/jazz concert. The restaurant even has a motto: “Everything hot and cool.”
The problem with Pepper’s “hot” and “cool” ideas is that they seldom turn out to be any good. The mussels, steamed with shallots, basil, cilantro, and parsley in a garlic brandy sauce, are a dream on paper. But they turn out to be surprisingly bland, so much so that we wish the chef had figured out a way to work peppers into the recipe. (“Isn’t that whole idea of this place?” asks a friend.) Something similar would benefit the clams Louisiana and the shrimp kabobs, whose only association with hotness comes in some lame-o sauces that barely qualify as spicy. The warning that accompanies the calamari, “Served to the brave only!,” is a little much considering that the supposedly dangerous chili pesto doesn’t cause any of us to even flinch.
A couple of Pepper’s starters were simply doomed on the drawing board. A variation on the Caesar salad is always welcome, but the ginger that Pepper uses to spike the dressing simply doesn’t work. The best that can be said of the Pacific quesadilla (a house specialty) is that it takes a gutsy kitchen to fill tortillas with banana, papaya, and pepper jack cheese. For your dipping pleasure, the dish comes with a positively horrid honey pepper sauce.
Pepper’s entrees are dazzling until it comes time to dig in. The twice-cooked Indonesian beef, slow-roasted and then char-grilled with lime juice, sounds amazing and looks even better; the cook somehow manages to get the skewers to form a sort of teepee on the plate. But the ribbons of beef and their pedestrian gravy taste no more exotic than a Salisbury steak. The Malaysian grilled pork chops come undercooked, and the carne asada, a flank steak marinated in red wine and Latin American spices, is so tough I have problems tearing through it with my steak knife. Chewing isn’t any easier. The Thai ginger chicken survives only because most of the previously mentioned honey pepper sauce is burned off by the grill.
Not all the dishes are losers. Though a bit oily, the garden pasta comes with a slightly tangy white wine sauce and crisp, fresh veggies. The peppered sea scallops I’d order again if only for the wonderful mustard dressing on the rim of the plate, one dollop for each morsel. And during lunch, Pepper does well with a dumbed-down menu that offers something closer to bar food, serving a variety of different sandwiches—the Cajun pot roast and spicy grilled eggplant are notable—and some decent Cajun fare, such as gumbo and red beans and rice.
If Pepper would consent to being more of a bar, it could in fact become a decent hangout—even though we were never satisfied by our dinners, sticking around for cocktails seemed natural. But scaling back to become simply another bar would run counter to everything Pepper tries to be, because it would mean Pepper would have to be satisfied with being a place that people like but don’t adore.
Restaurants can be dangerous when they try so hard to impress. They’re like people you meet at a party who won’t shut up until you laugh at one of their jokes, or who are dressed so fine you’d think they were up for auction. They won’t settle for anything less than love.
King Pepper, 808 King St., Alexandria. (703) 299-9153.
A friend who works at a Japanese newspaper laughed when I told her about a Japanese deli on Capitol Hill. Another friend jokingly asked if a surly fat guy with a blood-stained apron served up the sushi. But a Japanese deli is basically what Yamato is—a small, neighborhood takeout joint with a few tables crammed next to the register and in the back. People rave to me about Yamato’s sushi, though I’m partial to the miso soup. A cup is only a buck, and the tofu-and-scallion-flecked broth is one of the few warm dishes I know of that goes down well on hot days.
Yamato, 201 Massachusetts Ave. NE. (202) 546-3424.—Brett Anderson
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