By Elana Schor - 09/25/08 05:50 PM EDT
It’s never easy to follow a legend. Just ask Bruce Springsteen, who played the Childe Harold pub at the age of 23. Or, better yet, ask the promising 23-year-old chef at Darlington House, who is making his mark on the city after only four months in the Harold’s former Dupont home.
Darlington is a world apart from its culinary predecessor, which was known more for its cheap beer and gritty regulars than fine dining. The layout beckons to customers with three levels of seating, from a downstairs bar to a first-floor bistro to a chic second-floor “library room.”
Each of the three levels offers its own menu, but the atmosphere stays constant: studiously trendy yet relaxed. A night at Darlington can feel more like Manhattan than Washington; and indeed, young chef Alex Schulte cut his teeth at the four-star Modern in New York City.
The ground-floor pub area is designed for a younger crowd, with a DJ spinning unobtrusive techno instrumentals and kitschy wooden deer heads mounted on the wall. Worthy drinks include Peroni beer, crisp house ale, and adventurous Italian wines such as Principessa Gavi and Primitivo.
Schulte offers a slate of classic bar dishes with a gourmet pedigree, including a trio of tuna sliders with spicy ginger mayonnaise, a tangy pulled pork sandwich in hoisin sauce, and fish-and-chips with a cool dollop of salsa verde.
But the true standouts downstairs are frites — not too thick, not too skinny, but just right — rolled in dried rosemary and empanadas that crunch on first bite before giving way to the chili-spiked rumble of chorizo. The pistachio-encrusted goat cheese, served atop a lightly dressed green salad, makes a welcome palate cleanser for the abundance of dough on the menu, although its coating is curiously devoid of nutty flavor.
The flatbread pizzas, by contrast, are nothing but flavor, using their cracker-thin crusts as a canvas for pleasingly bold combinations of cheese and spice. Try the Giovanni, which skirts the boundary of sweet and savory with goat cheese, figs and arugula, and the Veg Head, a fragrant mélange of pesto, asparagus, tomato and mushroom that stands up well to a fork and knife.
The pub menu is not without its misses. The same chorizo that enlivens the empanadas misses the mark when added to a cheddar-cheese quesadilla. The coconut shrimp drowns its quality shellfish in breading reminiscent of a funnel cake at the county fair.
Dining hiccups of any size are easily masked by good service, however, and on this point Darlington delivers. After being prodded off many an outdoor table to make way for another customer, I was heartened by the wait staff’s willingness to let customers linger. When the wrong bottle of wine appeared or the kitchen was out of a particular item, my servers came through with a quick apology and a replacement dish that did the trick.
The ambience is even more convivial upstairs, where twinkling yellow lights cast a romantic glow over mahogany banquettes and symphonic acoustics gently mask the hubbub of conversation. It is not uncommon to encounter Darlington’s owners, who also run Sesto Senso and the Cleveland Park Grill, mingling at the cozy bar at the back of the first floor.
Schulte uses a more refined touch for his second menu, employing a rotating slate of seasonal ingredients in the Italianate structure of a four-course meal, with meat or fish following pasta.
His tuna carpaccio has the makings of a signature dish, balancing rich texture with the salty snap of soy vinaigrette and mizuna greens.
The melon and olive appetizer is another feather-light pleasure that blends two contrasting tastes. The house-made strigoli pasta goes to the opposite extreme, creating the foundation of a European country feast with a hearty mix of potato, pesto and haricot verts.
Ordering one item for each course upstairs is recommended only for the ravenous, as Schulte’s portions make a full meal from two appetizers or one pasta dish. Those who opt to hole up in the second-floor library are encouraged to order wine and fresh cheeses but may be able to finagle a selection from the pub or dining room menu.
Still, no matter which window you choose on Darlington House, it would be criminal to leave without dessert. Pastry chef Monika Padua’s creations pack an indulgent punch, matching perfectly with both the fried fare downstairs and the chic selections upstairs. (That chemistry is no accident — Padua is the chef’s partner outside as well as inside the kitchen.)
I tend to avoid donut holes served at upscale restaurants, figuring that Krispy Kreme has already perfected the technique, but Darlington’s orbs of fried dough made me a believer.
Coated in cinnamon and sugar, the holes come with dipping sauces so tasty that my companion couldn’t resist twirling her fork in the excess bourbon-spiked caramel.
But another deceptively simple-sounding dish, the ice cream sandwich, will put you off frozen yogurt forever with a scoop of creamy vanilla gelato that rests between two dense, bittersweet chocolate-walnut cookies. The sandwich melts slowly enough to last for 20 minutes on a plate, even on a warm night in Dupont.
And there is where Darlington House truly outdoes the once-famed Childe Harold, in the enjoyment of the last bite of summer, when meals are unplanned and a good glass of wine seemingly bottomless.