Diners can also create their own salads, choosing from four greens; nine fresh vegetables; five cheeses; eight proteins; eight kinds of nuts, olives and other extras; plus five dressings. It’s difficult to find outstanding salads at restaurants, yet our randomly composed concoction was surprisingly good.
All of the ingredients—the mesclun, avocado, cucumber, grape tomatoes, mozzarella, chicken, and homemade croutons dressed with lemon, shallot and olive oil—were bright and fresh-tasting. (The kitchen made only one goof, adding dried cranberries instead of the requested sunflower seeds—no big deal, although I wondered how well the kitchen would keep all the diner-designed orders straight.) For indecisive eaters, there are also a few house-assembled salads.
The menu includes several kinds of pizza, as well. The Cesco—with mozzarella, tomato, bacon, radicchio and stracchino (a soft Italian cheese)—is a good mix of flavors and textures. But I wasn’t crazy about the Contadina, with its tomatoes, mozzarella, goat cheese and measly mélange of diced “grilled” vegetables that didn’t taste grilled. And I can’t say I’m a fan of the soft, pliable pizza crust.
Compared to my two enjoyable lunch experiences, dinner was a letdown. All four appetizers I tried had components that didn’t really mesh, like jigsaw puzzle pieces that didn’t quite fit. Case in point: the panzanella bread salad, which tasted like a last-minute toss of red onions, cucumbers, chopped tomatoes and croutons.
Of four main courses, the best was the grilled, marinated lamb tenderloin, cooked to medium-rare as requested and with a terrific char-grilled flavor. The osso buco wasn’t melt-in-your-mouth tender. The squid ink tagliolini was overcooked and stingy with its promised shrimp, calamari and asparagus. And the tilapia’s Livornese sauce was too heavy, smothering the delicate white fish. (The “puffed chickpea popcorn” served with the fish was good, though. Crispy on the outside and soft in the middle, these garbanzos give the legume a new lease on life.)
I loved them all, veering only slightly toward the apricot jam as my favorite.
The chocolate meringue torte is a delightful temperature and textural experience. Served semi-frozen, creamy chocolate mousse and chocolate chip whipped cream are sandwiched between layers of crispy meringue.
Also in the well-spent calories category: Bongo-Bongo, which are profiteroles (cream puffs) drizzled with chocolate and filled with Chantilly cream; and Zuppa Inglese, a Marsala-soaked sponge cake layered with chocolate and vanilla custard.
As for the décor and atmosphere, the former McCormick & Schmick’s space has been lightened and brightened with soft greens and beiges. The place has a sophisticated, grown-up feel (the reception area resembles that of a boutique hotel), but it’s not stuffy.
The service was especially good (except for one waitress who didn’t recite the lunch specials or know that the restaurant validated parking). The restaurant has an experienced wait staff, half of whom followed Ricchi from his prior location.
I also visited the adjacent Co2 Lounge, the bar created by Bethesda real estate developer Mitch Weber for an upscale, older crowd. I’ll admit that I was a bit skeptical of Weber’s hype of the space. (“We’ve pushed the envelope…created the ‘new center of Bethesda.’…The area has never seen anything like this before.”) But I had a lovely Thursday evening there with a friend.
A low-key jazz combo was playing, and my Lemon Crush (vodka, Grand Marnier, lemon nectar, fresh lemon juice, sparkling water) went down smoothly. Although the cocktail prices seemed quite high at $14 to $17, I might even go back—but order an $8 beer. And in the spirit of second chances, maybe I’ll even stay for dinner.