And When Some?
Ningaloo sits in a space that was formerly home to Bardo, a sprawling beer hall, and, sometime before that, a car dealership. Whiffs of the past are immediately apparent once you step through the doors: Although the woman on the phone promises "sushi and then some" to any hungry comers, the bulk of Ningaloo's crowd seems primarily interested in the activities of hanging--smoking, drinking, pool playing--and there's often enough floor wetness to make one woman wish she'd worn her radials. Ningaloo's ambition is to pass as a restaurant, but the ambition yields little fruit. It's more a hall of mirrors than anything. "Can I go to Wendy's to get a hamburger?" one of my companions asks after we've retired to the adjoining pool hall for some post-meal stick. "Is that gauche?"
Not here. At least not tonight. A few moments after taking our seat, we discover that the kitchen has run out of "and then some." The news is hardly crushing, because Ningaloo is at its best imparting pleasure via its taps. The sheet of house-brewed beers reads like a wine list produced by a fanzine publisher ("Full, flowery hop aroma, bitter hop taste, characterized by medium maltiness"), and its contents are almost uniformly enchanting. The Dremo Tibetan Sasquatch is fruity, malty, and strong, making its name difficult to say quickly by the second round and nearly impossible to say at all by the fourth. But the Bardo Pale Ale is my poison, medium-bodied but fully flavored, its color intensified when set upon the copper-hued tables that line the dining area's periphery, reflecting light onto people's faces like the contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.
Some might take the room--relatively spare, expansive, and industrial, with fan-like, sculptural partitions near the bar--as a riff on Asian austerity, but sushi seems an odd match for the environment nonetheless. I've never been in a sushi parlor as smoky and dank as Ningaloo, and the sushi itself is less than pristine. The octopus nigiri is firm and pearly, the sake-smoked salmon is mellow and a little sweet, and the vegetable rolls are just fine. The rest is merely edible: Disconcertingly mushy spicy tuna. A crunchy eel roll that's poorly formed and, for some unknown reason, comes smeared with avocado. Faded-tasting yellowtail sitting haphazardly on its rice bed. The crab inside the California roll could feasibly have started its day in a can.
Ningaloo's chef comes from Perry's, a restaurant where the respectable sushi always outshines its kitchen's hacks at new American cuisine, and he's trying something vaguely similar at his new gig. The "and then some" is itemized on a slim menu that seems to glow in the dark, and its contents--meat skewers, calamari, pad Thai--should be familiar to anyone who's ever been to a bar that fancies itself as something more.
Ningaloo's fanciful aspects are undoubtedly endearing. Each trip seems to reveal something new, be it the storm-at-night wall paint near the bathroom, the water canals on the top of the bar, or the rusty metal container that's actually a jukebox. I'm eager to make a return visit despite my earlier meal--maybe we'll get to sit in the metal hut!--and I remain upbeat even after the hut turns out to be occupied and our steamed mussels are brought out cold. Our optimism isn't rewarded on the plate. The best thing about both my and my friend's entrees are juicy, marinated portobello strips--which was probably not the kitchen's plan. Thick triangles of seared tuna shouldn't be overshadowed by a side item, but the fish is absurdly difficult to cut, and its dull wasabi cream lacks a point. The jerk pork, studded with cool bits of mango, is better, which isn't to say good; the pork is literally burned.
By my third visit, the fact that Ningaloo's reach far exceeds its grasp is more amusing than anything else; on the way in, I even notice that the restaurant's name is misspelled on its neon sign. The staff is appropriately unpretentious and even funny. After showing us to our seats in a puddle by a hissing pipe, our waitress responds to our food questions with answers like "It sounds gross, but it's not," and with help proceeds to bring out our dinner in what might be described as sideways chronological order: first an appetizer, then an entree, then another appetizer, and so on, until, after about five minutes, there's barely enough room on our table for drinks.
Astonishingly, the food is actually worse than I expected. Chicken, shrimp, and beef skewers, ostensibly this kitchen's attempt at satay, are clunky and just plain not seasoned; the beef skewer is basically steak on a stick. Calamari is served like a slaw, in a syrupy sauce that manages to be both cloyingly hot and cloyingly sweet. The vegetable stir fry is served on a pile of potatoes instead of jasmine rice, as the menu states. Grilled salmon, like the New York strip, comes overcooked next to cold mashed potatoes. Despite the cosmetic rosemary branch that is stuck into seemingly everything that comes out of the kitchen, the only item we're brought that even looks good is the dessert. Everyone at our table agrees: Ningaloo serves the best truffles in chocolate beer sauce that we've ever had.
Ningaloo, 2001 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington, (703) 599-3400.
Table Talk is a throwback fern bar with career waitresses and what one reader claims to be the "best breakfast in Virginia." The evidence: golden brown omelets, griddle-crisp corned beef hash, eggs poached to look like little clouds, and a juice selection that encompasses everything from orange to prune. The bar is convivial but tight to the point of being overly intimate; as she gets up to leave, the stranger next to me nudges my arm and hands me a breath mint.
Table Talk, 1623 Duke St., Alexandria, (703) 548-3989. --Brett Anderson
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