Sunday, January 14, 2007

D.C. Restaurant Week: Cafe Atlantico

As we’ve gotten to know our new city over the past few months, I must admit I’ve been disappointed with the state of D.C. dining. There’s a perception that D.C. is a second-tier food city, and sadly, I think my experience has supported that. I’ve had a few good meals here, but all too often they’re just sort of OK. On Thursday night, though, I had my first really great meal here. It’s Restaurant Week here in D.C., which means it’s time for dozens of the city’s best restaurants to offer a special prix-fixe three-course menu for $30. We chose to check out Cafe Atlantico, a Nuevo Latino place with a few creative twists. It’s owned by Jose Andres, the chef behind Jaleo (a tapas place we really like) and Minibar (haven’t been there yet, but they do “molecular gastronomy” type stuff like, oh, caramelized olive oil bonbons). Cafe Atlantico is sort of the middle ground between traditional fare and that more experimental stuff.

I started out with a mojito, and it was fantastic. I’d heard they were great here, and mine lived up to its reputation. Mojitos are easy to screw up, I think. They’re often too sweet, too tart, too boozy, too weak, too something. This one, though, was perfectly balanced. And they don’t skimp on the mint! (I would have happily ordered a second one later in the meal, but our server was nowhere to be seen until dessert. That was the one service blunder.)

My first course was conch fritters with jicama-avocado ravioli and mango oil. I loved this dish because everything on the plate had a counterpoint, texturally and in terms of flavor. There were these hot, savory fried morsels complemented by these cold, clean-tasting ravioli. There was a palate-cleanser quality about them. I do wish there’d been a little more of the mango oil; it brightened the whole thing up. But about those ravioli: they were wrapped up, dim sum steamed-dumpling style, in something that at first looked very much like a spring roll wrapper. I could taste jicama in there with the avocado, but there was something about it I couldn’t figure out. The crunch wasn’t there. I didn’t realize until the second dumpling that the jicama was the wrapper – sliced paper-thin! So that was kind of cool. Mark had a salad he really enjoyed; he said the vinaigrette was a lot subtler than most. Vinegar needn’t club you over the head.

My main course was duck confit and, once again, everything on the plate had something balancing it out. The duck was bruleed on top, which was brilliant. I don’t know if a crisp sugar crust on top of a layer of caramelized duck fat sounds good to you, but trust me, it was fabulous. I don’t generally like fatty meat, but duck confit just melts me into a little puddle of happy. I forget now what the sauce was, but it was something saltier to balance the sweetness, and there was a little frisee salad to offset the fat from the duck. There were some really thinly sliced plantain chips, too. Meanwhile, while I was in duck fat heaven, Mark was enjoying a portobello mushroom with corn, goat cheese, and beets. (His contribution to this review? "It was good.")

(I just said “duck fat,” or some variation, four times in one paragraph.)

Finally, dessert was a little chocolate cake with a molten center, bananas, caramel, and –this will sound weird but it totally worked – a little lime juice. It kept everything from being cloyingly sweet. See, again, it’s all about the counterpoints. Mark had a passionfruit sorbet: not too sweet, not too tart.

Here’s my one complaint, though: We ordered coffee with dessert, and the coffee was awful. It tasted like the dregs of a carafe that had been sitting on the hot plate for two hours. I’ve had better coffee at IHOP. Why do so many really good restaurants treat coffee like an afterthought? After so much attention to detail throughout the meal, it’s really jarring at the end to be served bad coffee. A great little cup of French-press coffee would have been a perfect conclusion, and it would have been so good with that dessert. So much energy is spent on food and wine pairings – why not coffee? It just seems dumb to ignore a diner’s last impression of the meal.

Coffee-colored water aside, it was a memorable meal, and a lovely way to celebrate my new job. (Yes, new job! Like how I snuck that in there at the end?)

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Blogger Sarah said...

Well, this blog had been sadly lacking in duck fat--now Tara's filled in that gap! Good.

The restaurant sounds fantastic, but not too funky-fusiony.

CONGRATS on the job! Details, details, do tell!

5:53 PM  
Anonymous Mr Tart. said...


I've thoroughly enjoyed Cafe Atlantico a couple of times, even to the point of bringing coworkers there on business trips back.

I also am glad you like Jaleo. I loved it when I lived there--particularly as dinner pre-theater at the Landsburgh (Cafe Atlantico is goo post-theater, though I once got my car locked in the garage because we lingered too long). I definitely think they do calamari better than a ton of places, and their spinach with pine nuts was memorable too.

5:55 PM  

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