By Suzanne Struglinski - 03/25/10 11:22 PM EDT
So you very well might blow past The Reserve. But with its castle-esque wooden front doors and stacked-stone façade, the new restaurant is doing everything it can to stand out from the corporate architecture and no-frills lunch spots that surround it.
The space used to be home to the gyros-and-fries joint Ollie’s Trolley, but it closed down and morphed practically overnight into the three-level, multipurpose bar and lounge that is now The Reserve.
The medieval theme continues when you step inside. The main-floor restaurant is lit only by candles and a few wall sconces. Wood paneling lines the walls, and the room has a mix of black tables and chairs and deep leather couches behind coffee tables. Even though it’s considered the dining area, it screams “late-night crowd,” and around 8 p.m. on a Saturday, the restaurant was empty.
As the hours wore on, the space becomes standing-room-only. Some people arrive to eat while others eagerly await the tables and chairs being cleared to make way for the dance floor.
Despite the sparse crowd, we were seated at a couch and coffee table — a managerial decision that proved vexing and at times frustrating. Nevertheless, the small-plates procession that followed incorporated such a wide variety of food that any lingering cravings we had going into the meal were sated by the end.
A memorable start comes in the tequenos of queso blanco — by far the most unique item on the menu. Wonton wrappers envelop a creamy white cheese and come with an avocado dip. A very upscale version of the basic mozzarella stick, the wonton wrapper is fried to a good consistency: crispy but still chewy, and not overly crunchy. The avocado dip is not quite guacamole, as it is missing some spices. And while good on its own, it initially seems a strange companion to wontons. Then again, queso blanco, a white Mexican cheese, doesn’t necessarily go with wonton wrappers, either, but the dish somehow works. You get the familiar Asian texture of the wonton at first bite, but then the creamy cheese throws you off a bit. As you work through the dish, the flavors continue to meld — and even begin to complement each other.
Next up was a grilled Alaskan salmon with what the menu describes as a sorrel jus with steamed leeks. The jus comes out as a neon-green colored sauce, and the two-bite portion of fish sits on the bed of wilted leeks. The light, oniony taste of the leeks goes well with the salmon, but the flavor of the sauce is virtually unidentifiable.
Continuing with protein, three teeny lamb chops arrive all alone except for a container of tzatziki sauce, though the menu lists sautéed mustard greens as part of the plate. The chops come medium as ordered and have a pleasing, slightly crunchy char on the outside. Simple salt and garlic seasoning do not overpower the lamb.
The Kobe beef sliders, another meaty choice, are topped with mushrooms and scallions. The mushrooms are cut in a way that is almost too big for the tiny burger, but the classic flavor pairing works well again here. The Belgian fries that accompany the dish are a dark golden brown and come out hot. These are solid fries that are nicely salted — some are crunchier than others — but nothing elevates them to greatness.
We stuck to the heavier, wintry foods with the Tartiflette, the classic French potatoes-and cheese dish. It’s made with tome de savoie cheese and smoked bacon and comes with toasty bread. The little French potato slices and cheese make for an intensely rich combination, and this is one time when the small portion is welcome.
On the lighter side, the scallops dish comes out as three half-dollar-sized pieces of seafood on a scoop of sweet-potato puree topped with crispy sweet-potato strips. The garlicky scallops are seared on the outside but maintain a delicate center.
Unfortunately, the kitchen goes light on the seasoning here — as well as the portion. The plate could use a few more scallops to make it complete.
From the dessert menu, the ricotta beignets with chestnut honey come to the table piping hot, and proceed to release steam after the first bite. In the same vein as the tequenos of queso blanco, the fried dough full of ricotta cheese is an odd mix but proves a satisfying end to the meal. These, too, are insanely rich (it is a cheese-filled doughnut, after all) but they disappear quickly.
Meanwhile, the vanilla chocolate cheesecake combines the two most basic flavors into one with a crumbly crust. It isn’t remarkable, and the better bet is the beignets.
The Reserve has no special cocktail menu, but the bartender is said to make anything you would like. (Apparently that’s not an empty offer; one table dragged out an iPhone to look up the ingredients in a cocktail they were requesting.) The wine list looks extensive, but the waiter cautions that the restaurant has only a few of the selections.
Once the place becomes more lounge than restaurant, a DJ starts playing techno music, and a second floor opens. The third floor is bathed completely in white and has couches all along the wall for bottle-service guests.
The Reserve could be good for a girls’ night out, a place to catch up with friends or a date, but it has more the feel of a nighttime destination, which can be confusing for a restaurant patron. With better details on its dishes, a full wine list and an actual cocktail menu, the establishment has the chance to stand out on L Street.