By Amanda Grace Johnson - 09/24/09 11:58 PM EDT
Romance? Oui, oui
For an evening that touches on the traditional, couples would do well to visit Penn Quarter’s Bistro d’Oc — one of the most low-key romantic restaurants in town. For the most intimate experience, they should ask for one of the two top tables tucked into the window, which offer a view of Ford’s Theatre and people passing by. And a glance at the affordable wine list is just a preview of the pleasing dinner to follow.
My dining companion and I moved on to a roasted chicken — a dish that may sound humdrum, but this one in particular being special enough for a celebration. The accompanying fries were so flawless that they begged to be dipped in the chicken’s jus rather than ketchup. For another main dish, we took the wait staff’s recommendations of the cassoulet maison. They didn’t let us down — the hearty bake of soft white beans and meaty stew served as a classic comfort on a breezy fall night.
No knife was necessary for the tender braised short ribs, and the aromatic reduction’s flavors were so complex, even a non-vegetable-eater could clean the plate of juicy carrots, onions and portobello mushrooms. But not all the side items were so successful. Boring sautéed potatoes played second fiddle to the delectable duck confit, and mushy lentils dulled an otherwise pleasing and very hearty pork shank. For dessert, we chose the decadent: the café gourmand, an assortment of French desserts that included cookies and cream puffs sure to please every palate.
Light that fire
If the evening calls for somewhere more modern, Matchbox might be the ideal spot for a casual supper with a significant other. Chinatown plays host to the original location, but the Eastern Market establishment outshines its predecessor with warm, flickery lighting and muted conversation (the sister eatery is notorious for being one of the noisiest restaurants in the District).
Matchbox is known for its pizzas and sliders, but the restaurant’s menu features several other gems. A recent visit brought to the fore a light, refreshing calamari salad, pairing banana peppers and red peppers with gently fried seafood over fresh greens. The grilled tuna salad struck a delicate balance of spicy and sweet with its honey-wasabi vinaigrette. The otherwise traditional chopped salad got new bite with a sprinkling of small, al dente pasta rings.
On the other hand, the pork tenderloin, a staff favorite, arrived a little too far on the done side, but it was saved by its accompanying pool of scrumptious shrimp Creole sauce. Not-so-special short ribs lent the spotlight to the addictive bacon-gorgonzola cheese brussels sprouts — they’d be a great weapon in the veggies-kids-will-eat arsenal — and fried green tomatoes were surprisingly authentic alongside a sweet-corn puree and well-seared scallops.
As for that pizza, it’s great for couples who want to share. The Q Special flaunted warm fall flavors with its smoky grilled chicken, earthy mushrooms and melted, comforting mozzarella cheese. The Fire and Smoke offered an exceptional harmony of culinary characteristics with its sweet red and spicy chipotle peppers, smoked gouda cheese and basil. But this one’s strictly for those who can handle the heat (don’t say I didn’t warn you). Once the main course is done, couples can continue stealing bites off the same dessert plate, with the rich bourbon-pecan pie served next to a cool vanilla gelato.
Avgolemono soup mixed tender rotisserie chicken with orzo and carrots in velvety lemon-and-egg broth. Almost more of a stew than a soup, it was a great way to warm up on a cool autumn night. Crazy feta dip whipped zippy cheese with hot jalapeño peppers, pairing well with warm pita bread. And piping hot fritters blended the same Greek cheese with chopped zucchini and oregano. A dining couple may want to go for two orders of the just-charred-enough grilled asparagus, dressed lightly in subtle lemon vinaigrette and also sprinkled with feta. As for the flaky, creamy and crispy spanakopita, it was a food lover’s textural symphony.
The seafood and meat mezze, though, are Cava’s biggest assets. Grilled baby octopus had a consistency and essence more akin to white meat than seafood. It was salted well enough to bring to mind the taste of the ocean, but with a bright splash of lemon and without a hint of fishiness. Enormous grilled scallops with a satiny center were seasoned just right, and tomatoes and feta provide just enough tang to the lollipop-shaped seafood.
Afterward, couples can grab drinks at one of Barracks Row’s many other bars or soak up the moonlight wandering the charming city streets. Capitol Hill is the perfect neighborhood for a romantic after-dinner stroll — and maybe even that goodnight kiss.