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It’s hard to trust a man wearing a pressed shirt under a loudly colored vest when he reassures us that he’s really a “T-shirt and jeans guy.” On the level or not, though, Tempo’s host is only doing his job. We’ve trekked to the restaurant partly because we were tipped off that the seafood was superb and partly because we envisioned a restaurant housed in a converted gas station to be casual. Upon noticing that the dining room is populated mostly by middle-aged folks who at dinner are still dressed in their church clothes, the host has to quell our fear that we constitute Tempo’s first exposure to denim since its days as a Shell. Maybe we should cut our losses and go to Arthur Treacher’s next door. “Don’t be silly,” says the vested man. “Follow me and watch your step.”
Tempo’s dining climate isn’t exquisite or hip—just comfortable. The dining room is lit by bright fixtures mounted on Tempo’s high ceiling, and the glare had several of us longing for candles. But there’s something about Tempo’s conspicuous lack of attitude—the pretzel bowl next to the guest book, the paintings hung less for aesthetic purposes than to give the walls some color—that seems to invite kicking off your shoes. “This place reminds me of home,” remarks one suburban émigré. “Or even more so, a restaurant in Santa Fe.”
What’s most engaging about Tempo is the way its kitchen mingles Italian, French, and American cooking styles. The crab soup’s peppery broth, which the menu cagily says is prepared “our way,” is balanced by cool, fresh cilantro. The ensalade mista—an avocado stuffed with grilled shitake mushrooms and served over wilted radicchio—is so sinfully sublime (the ’shrooms taste like bacon) that I called in advance of another visit to make sure that it would be on the specials menu. (“Sorry, we only serve that once every three or four months,” said the woman on the line. “Shit,” I grumped. “Excuse me?” she asked.) I think it’s the shellfish that causes an out-of-town friend—a proud fast-food junkie who isn’t averse to wearing a bib—to go slightly loco. So enamored is he of the cozze gratinate (mussels baked with bread crumbs, parsley, and enough garlic to season a small chicken) that he starts misdirecting his praise toward the woman who ordered it. “Tell me a story about your poise,” he begs, lost in peculiar awe. “Like, have you lead any armies into battle?”
Other appetizers are more plainly rendered, though every bit as successful. The crispy asparagus parmigiana is simple enough—a plate of firm spears baked with a generous layer of parmesan. With wine, appetizers, and main courses, our bill at Tempo always seemed reasonable considering the quality—even at $35 a head, no one left the place bitching about getting robbed. Still, upon ordering plates of oysters on the half shell and fresh mozzarella encircled by ripe, basil-flecked tomatoes, some in our group express concerns about overdoing it. But all price-induced anxieties vanish after our food is promptly devoured.
Staying true to our initial mission, we try nearly all of Tempo’s seafood. The sea scallops (coquilles Anna) and the marinated swordfish (espadon au rosemarin) are both highlights, the former graced with slivers of fresh ginger and spring onions, the latter with garlic and rosemary. On one trip, the kitchen is out of the sogliola “di-Amore” (though we tried it on another visit, when we fought over the julienne olives and whole exotic mushrooms that surrounded the flounder and crabmeat), but the poisson du golfe proves to be much more than a tolerable compromise—a soft hunk of mahi mahi made tangy with cilantro and lime juice. The fritto misto is the only seafood letdown, and only because the plate of fried calamari, sole, scallops, shrimp, and zucchini seems better suited as an appetizer.
With our seafood options all but exhausted, Tempo’s meats and pastas take center stage. Smothered in a luscious, lime-green cheese sauce, the medaillon de boeuf au roquefort is crazy rich, which may have inspired one woman to divulge the unflattering way a workmate was portrayed in her previous night’s dream. (“Dreams add 10 pounds,” advises a friend). The mixture of feta and dill that oozes out of the chicken colleene is such a pleasant surprise that I don’t mind when hot globs of it drip onto my pants. Both the tortellini “tricolore” (cheese-filled pasta with ham strips and mushrooms encrusted in parmesan) and the capelli d’angelo napoletana (hair-thin spaghetti tossed with garlic, basil, and tomato) are vibrant and light. And the steak diablo is as fine a piece of meat as any of us can remember trying—Morton’s and the Palm included—and at a fraction of the price.
Considering the back-bending graciousness of our hosts—one waiter apologized profusely after noticing that we’d poured our own refills of wine—it’s not surprising that a poulet printemps, served almost bone dry, went all but unnoticed. But the person who ordered and ate every last morsel of it had gamely suffered disappointment before. “I was written up once in People magazine,” he boasted, speaking a half-truth. “But I got edited out.”
Tempo, 4231 Duke St., Alexandria, (703) 370-7900.
Haunted by the name of the former tenant, which is still emblazoned on her restaurant’s awning, the woman at the counter of Food Corner & Grill, last home of Maggie’s New York Style Pizza, is sick of telling customers that they don’t serve slices. It must be doubly frustrating, since the month-old takeout joint serves pretty much everything else: from pepper scallops, pad Thai, and souvlaki to chicken noodle soup and grilled cheese. The woman recommended the yuca—cut thick, fried to a perfect crisp, and topped with slaw—and chicharron—a pile of leathery, spiced beef that tasted a day old. I’d stick with the cold-cut sandwiches: They’re made fresh.
Food Corner & Grill, 1401 Rhode Island Ave. No phone number available.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.—Brett Anderson