Dishing Expedition: Blue Ridge, Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca, Kora The early report on three new restaurants

Country Star? Ashok Bajaj, just your average rural tavern operator.
Darrow Montgomery/file

Blue Ridge’s turn-of-the-century farmhouse ambience serves a purpose, above and beyond its knack to make us feel like we’ve walked straight into a Louisa May Alcott novel (as designed by Robert Wilson). Managing partner Eli Hengst has stripped away our modern comforts—save for the pop tunes pumped over the sound system—in the apparent hope that we’ll make a similar intellectual leap backward.

The rustic atmosphere seems designed to make us reflect on our own past. Perhaps we’ll consider our grandparents, or maybe our great-grandparents, and their relationship to food. They didn’t drag the covered wagon over to Whole Foods and buy apples shipped from Chile; their foods were tied to the seasons and nearby farms, maybe even their own farm. Blue Ridge’s design, it would appear, is a giant, brick-and-mortar metaphor for chef Barton Seaver’s approach to cooking, which is rooted in the surrounding farms and waters. It’s a Slow Food statement disguised as interior design.

Yes, I understand the connection that Blue Ridge is making (even if I think my own turn-of-the-century grandma would have ripped those quilts right off of Blue Ridge’s walls, thrown them on the nearest bed, and demanded that someone wheel in the Magnavox and tune it to Kojak). What I don’t understand is why Blue Ridge’s kitchen can’t seem to cook those farm-to-table ingredients any better.

I’ve visited Blue Ridge on three occasions now, and every time, the kitchen has screwed up one preparation or another. Once it was the bluefish, grilled into an almost moisture-less block and served with an overly bitter mint-pecan pesto (which has since been ditched). Another time it was an heirloom tomato salad, served with bitter frisée and funk-forward smoked-cheddar croutons, the entirety of which was salted as if the kitchen were trying to preserve the thing. Then there was the grilled pork loin, practically raw on one side and approaching medium on the other, or the broiled Rappahannock oysters that were drowning under a sea of herbs.

So why do I feel like I’m picking on the smart kid at school? Perhaps it’s because I’ve sampled far better fare in establishments owned or once owned by Hengst (Mendocino Grill and Sonoma) or under Seaver’s direction (Hook, Café Saint-Ex). I expect more from these nerds.

That said, I’ve not always slunk away from the Glover Park operation (2340 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-333-4004) disappointed in my meal. Blue Ridge’s “grass fed burger”—who knew hamburgers enjoyed grazing the fields?—packs plenty of grill flavor and more than enough richness to satisfy those looking for a ground beef rush. The superior sandwich, however, is the fried-green-tomato BLT, slathered with a cream cheese pimiento spread. With that sammie and a glass of Starr Hill amber, I could actually consider calling Blue Ridge home.

 

 

Osteria My Eye

 

Ashok Bajaj doesn’t typically make mistakes when planning his restaurants, which now number seven with the opening of Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca at 1100 New York Ave. NW. (Caution: If you cruise NY Avenue looking for the place, you’ll quickly become stuck in a Lewis Carroll–esque loop; the restaurant’s entrance is actually on H Street.) But I have to say, I wouldn’t have hung the “osteria” tag on Bibiana. I mean, if this polished establishment falls under any rational, non-celebrity-chef-usurped definition of osteria—as in a “modest place” or “small restaurant in the country”—then we should just go ahead and discard all the classic Italian eatery terms right now.

I’ll grant you that chef Nicholas Stefanelli’s menu doesn’t approach the sophistication of, say, Enzo Fargione’s at Teatro Goldoni (or even Stefanelli’s former place of employment, the late Maestro), but neither does it sling red sauce. And more to the point, the dining room, all sleeked out in dark woods and shades of gray, exudes the kind of elegance you expect from a Bajaj restaurant. This is no more an osteria than Citronelle is a bistro.

There’s no harm, of course, in mislabeling your restaurant (other than the fact customers might expect lower prices than those found under Bibiana’s meat and fish offerings). The only real foul during my initial visit was committed by whoever places orders for the kitchen. On a Friday night at 9, the place was sold out of branzino, among other ingredients.

It really didn’t matter in the end. I found the kitchen, despite its heavy hand with salt, operating at a high level. The delicate golden batter that entombed my fried squash blossoms offered plenty of crunch and little grease; it would have been perfect had it offered less salt, too. Conversely, I can’t imagine how anyone could improve upon the crudo of cobia, which is a study in simplicity, little more than a rectangle of translucent flesh topped with tiny garnishes of red onion, jalapeno, and mint, then finished with a citrus-herb emulsion. Each flavor popped like a cheap party balloon.

But of the dishes I sampled, it was Stefanelli’s veal cheeks entrée that impressed me most. The cheeks, braised to the consistency of soft butter, were set atop a thin layer of polenta taragna and covered with enough mushrooms to make a mycologist blush. The entirety was then sauced with a luxuriant veal reduction. Was the dish rich? Hmm, yeah, and salty, too. But it was also elevated with the deft application of rosemary, so often abused, and with the sweet hit of corn in the polenta. I have a feeling this dish will be a huge hit when the colder weather arrives.

 

Souped Up

 

Brunch is never my preferred way to sample a chef’s cooking, but I have to confess, as far as these weekend pig-outs go, the service at Kora in Crystal City (2250-B Crystal Drive; 571-431-7090) passes the omelet test: You can happily pass on the omelets in favor of better dishes. Kora offers a three-course brunch for $20. Its options, including burgers and French toast, venture well beyond the Italian staples that dominate brothers Morou and Amadou Ouattara’s other menus.

But I came for Italian fare—or Italian fare by way of the Ouattaras’ fertile imaginations. Or maybe Italian by way of Wolfgang Puck, if you’re talking about Kora’s take on Spago’s famous smoked salmon pizza. This version is less glam, as you’d expect from a place so far removed from El Lay. It’s not as dense with slices of salmon; it features no caviar; and its crust isn’t as sweet as the honey-drizzled dough Puck prefers. Yet it’s a solid pie, even if I wish the pizzamaker would leave the rounds in the oven a few seconds longer.

But the dish that really blew me away was something even further removed from Italian cooking. It was the eggplant gazpacho with “tomato pearls,” a holdover from Morou Ouattara’s previous restaurant, Farrah Olivia. This Spanish import is, in a word, spectacular. I could taste fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers, and even eggplant, if I thought about it really hard. But I could taste about a 1,000 other ingredients, too, which made me wish we could hang onto summer just a few weeks more to enjoy this mini-masterpiece.

 

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 221.

Our Readers Say

Why would anyone want a 1,000 flavors in their mouth at the same time? Sounds like the cuilinary equivalent of a Michael Bay movie.
I tried to take a friend to Blue Ridge, but it was closed at lunchtime. Oh well.
why is it that i just discovered you? how long have you been reviewing restaurants in DC? I love your candor. Truthful reviews, baby, that's what I'm talking about. Keep it up and don't get soft, please!

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