All grown up

To the uninitiated, Cleveland Park might look like it suffers from something of an identity crisis.

Stroll down this strip-malled stretch of Connecticut Avenue and you’ll find yourself facing a dizzying panoply of restaurant facades. The options offered up by the neighborhood range widely, to say the least: Within a couple of blocks, you have dive bars (read: Atomic Billiards), luxe Modern American (Ardeo + Bardeo), gentrified satellite-sports outfits (Cleveland Park Bar and Grill), no-frills pho-slingers (Nam Viet) … the list goes on.

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But maybe this is fitting. Sandwiched between anything-goes Adams Morgan and the settled-down reaches of the city’s upper northwest, Cleveland Park caters to something of an in-between crowd: young (or young-at-heart) professionals who don’t see karaoke and caviar as mutually exclusive — and for whom Ripple, an upscale new boîte that seizes on the local/sustainable/organic meme, will both stand out and fit right in.

While providing further proof of its environs’ status as emerging foodie hotspot, Ripple also manages to fulfill an ever-so-slightly different niche from likeminded neighbors. Neither as thematically rigid as the one-steak-fits-all Medium Rare nor as out-and-out sexy as Ardeo — otherwise probably its closest culinary cousin — chef Logan Cox’s brainchild is sophisticated but never pretentious, romantic without rubbing it in.

Its main dining room lighter and brighter than, say, Ardeo’s darkened digs, Ripple’s free to show off its elegant — though by no means staid — design: blue chandeliers overhanging a clean-and-simple hardwood floor; banquettes bedecked in fabric of wildly variegated color and pattern, though somehow without feeling busy or loud.

But speaking of loud — volume might be the one fault this reviewer and his companion pointed up on successive visits. When crowded with patrons, the flooring and narrow-shouldered design of the room made for something of a cacophony. Then again, given the vibrant, convivial atmosphere conjured by the lighting and close-pressed tables — we found ourselves comparing notes with an adjacent table, on one trip — this is a piddling complaint.

It’s also one likely to be drowned out when the first course arrives. Aside from a stellar wine list and a handful of “snacks” listed on the menu’s second page (the hand-cut fries are a must, though the portion might spoil even the heartiest appetite), Ripple opts, as with the ambiance, to keep things clean and simple: a selection of three or four light starters, meatier second courses and proper entrees, all of their constituent ingredients hailing from local farms, co-ops and creameries.

Ah, but there’s a reason for the menu’s brevity — and one that makes reviewing its contents a bit of a tricky proposition: that is, it changes quite frequently. The four days between our two visits were enough to see one of the three middle courses and two of the four main dishes change completely.

Of course, judging by those offerings we were privileged to sample, in this case the reviewer’s gripe is the diner’s pleasure. An appetizer of apple-barley salad featuring fennel and lightly smoky shavings of sheep’s cheese and flaky rockfish was a perfectly light, refreshing way to start a meal, particularly when paired with the Tocco prosecco; the tangy, fruity combination made for a final reminder of summer just as true fall set in. (The pumpkin soup with squid, charred eggplant and pine nuts might be more appropriate, given the sharpening chill in the air, but we’ll still give top honors to the zippy little salad.)

As far as second courses went, we were a touch disappointed, at the time of our return trip, to see the fried duck egg, ringed by perfectly briny mussels, all of it atop a heavenly black-truffle puree, disappear from the menu. And while a replacement of roasted octopus — again featuring mussels — was a valiant effort, we were a bit nonplussed by the comparatively bland quinoa-and-lobster risotto’s continued residence.

But again: minor quibbles, and ones likely to be forgotten by dint of the appearance of the main feature. At apparently equal ease with fish, fowl and land animal, the restaurant saves its master stroke for the third course — where, while a medallion of bright-pink albacore tuna and the quail ragu were notable competitors, a star emerged in the smoked venison.

Appearing at the table tantalizingly red at their center, flanked by spears of buttery-soft boudin blanc and golden-brown toasted oats — the latter a sort of refined take on tater tots — the several slices of venison were a revelation. And though a ginger emulsion ladled out alongside the dish was a bit much, shouting down its other flavors, that creamy pool only lapped at the meat’s darkened edges. We simply skirted around it, savoring the creation’s many other hues and inflections — and rather quickly becoming too full to contemplate the made-to-order chocolate-chip cookies we’d devoured, along with a tall glass of chocolate milk, to cap off our prior visit. 

A decadent three courses topped off by a back-to-the-basics classic: Could anything be more Cleveland Park?