By D.J. Siegel - 03/03/10 11:19 PM EST
Trying a new restaurant can often feel like a first date: There’s the excitement and anticipation, the novelty of experiencing something new, the hope of shared interests and the earnest desire that you’ll want to meet again.
Eola, an upscale Dupont Circle eatery open since September, specializes in seasonal and often unusual ingredients. It is what might be considered a great “on paper” candidate.
To boot, the restaurant’s reasonably priced menu has character, with items — like pork jowl and chicken-fried tongue — that definitely serve as good conversation starters.
And yet, with all that, I find myself thinking this relationship just might not be for me.
The restaurant’s average appearance — the buttercup walls, heavy wood furniture, black-and-white photos and ambient jazz music — isn’t a big strike against it. After all, it’s what’s on the inside that counts — and Eola’s menu, while small, is big on personality.
With a focus on local, seasonal ingredients, the restaurant has a limited, changes-weekly menu of unusual offerings. Intriguing parts of animals are featured prominently and have become a sort of calling card for the eatery.
“A lot of people like the fact that we play with heart and tongue and jowl,” Singhofen said. “It’s fun to play with those things, and it’s even better when people enjoy them.”
Eola’s menu typically consists of a half-dozen appetizers, with both meat and vegetarian options. The entree offerings almost always include two fish dishes, one beef, one “different” protein (veal, pork), one poultry (duck, guinea hen, pheasant … rarely chicken) and a pasta dish. The small dessert menu features house-made pastries and ice creams. Everything at Eola, in fact, is made in-house, from bread to pastries to pasta.
“We look at the menu and try and embrace the season and stay as close to home as we possibly can,” Singhofen said. “Having 40 items on the menu just doesn’t make sense. We can’t concentrate on what we’re doing, and the idea here is execution. We want to do things perfectly every time.”
An amuse-bouche of confit of pork heart, with roughly crushed turnip, brandied cherry, pecan and celeriac leaf, sets the tone early that this isn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill evening. It’s a well-constructed, pretty presentation, but the pork confit has a mushy texture and beef-jerky aftertaste that is not altogether appealing.
The appetizers, Tamworth pork jowl and parsnip panna cotta, do little to steer things back on course. The pork jowl is salty, fatty, and overshadowed by cheddar grits and overly seasoned collard greens. A bite of each is satisfying — particularly the greens — but altogether, they make a muddle.
The savory panna cotta, typically a chilled, sweet, gelatin-based dessert, is served warm with toasted rice, pistachios, Bluefoot mushrooms, radish and deviled quail egg. The parsnips, cooked in milk and cream until soft, are mixed with agar (seaweed) instead of gelatin.
Since first dates call for politeness, I’ll put it this way: The dish was not successful. The gelatinous texture and tepid temperature make for an off-putting combination. On the bright side, the toasted rice and pistachio garnishes are tasty, and the miniature deviled quail egg is playful.
Singhofen admits the dish is an acquired taste.
“I’ve noticed we sell a good bit of them, and you either love it or hate it — there’s no in between,” he says of the panna cotta. That Singhofen would keep an appetizer on his menu that many people hate is either a sign of complete dedication to his craft or poor business acumen. Only time will tell on that.
There’s some trepidation as the main courses arrive, but the lovely presentation of rare, pan-roasted Hereford beef over shallots, lentils and red-wine butter helps do away with the unfavorable impressions of the previous course.
The meat is perfectly cooked, a lovely rare red that doesn’t even require a knife to cut. The shallots are a sweet complement to the red wine butter, and the surprising star, the lentils, are tangy and downright scrumptious.
The wild rockfish, with farro, sunchoke puree, petite mustard greens and clam emulsion, isn’t quite as successful as its meaty counterpart. The rockfish is well-prepared but under-seasoned, most likely in an attempt to highlight the flavor of a fish that naturally doesn’t have much on its own. The sunchoke puree is bright and flavorful, but not enough to recommend a dish in which the fish should be the standout.
It’s now time for dessert, the last-ditch effort to make a good impression.
Bread pudding always seems to be one of those desserts that can be easily relegated to a dining footnote. At Eola, it’s a standout: perfectly moist bread sprinkled with rum-soaked raisins, which detonate delightedly on the tongue. The praline ice cream is both smooth and crunchy, a perfect cold companion to the warm bread pudding.
The accompanying crème fraiche ice cream falls into the “interesting” category where some of Eola’s other menu items also reside. With its almost salty bite, the item once again challenges notions of what should be sweet and what should be savory.
While I wait for my check, I find myself wondering if I would be interested in a second meeting with Eola. After all, there were some intriguing highs and lows, some good times and bad. It may not have found its groove yet, but it’s a well-intentioned place, and that should count for a lot.