By Suzanne Struglinski - 02/02/12 11:42 PM EST
Elisir means “elixir” in Italian, but Chef Enzo Fargione should have named his new Penn Quarter restaurant Dettaglio — “detail.”
From the artistic food presentations to the dining room’s video monitors offering a sneak peek into the kitchen and the ornate gold box containing the check at meal’s end, Fargione and his staff pay precise attention to every aspect of the customer’s experience.
The restaurant, opened in late 2011, bills itself as fine Italian dining, but erase any visions of huge bowls of pasta and meatballs covered in marinara sauce. Fargione translates Italian cooking into a new experience. Lamb, sea bass, duck and even beets all have a place on the menu, which is set to change seasonally.
Service starts the minute diners walk in, with a warm greeting and a prompt coat check. Once seated, ladies can keep their pocketbooks off the floor by resting them on a purse stool. A team of suit-and-tie-clad staff members serves more as guides than mere wait staff throughout the evening. More than once a staff member says he is there to make us happy, whether it is getting an answer from the kitchen on how a dish is prepared or choosing four glasses of wine to go along with the seven-course tasting menu. The service here is some of the best in the city.
The video monitors offer clients a look at the culinary circus that takes place in the vast open kitchen. It’s almost like a live taping of a Food Network show, the only downside being that it’s hard to concentrate on the restaurant’s menu.
Once diners take their eyes off the entertainment, they can decide between several a la carte options and the seven- and 10-course tasting menus. My dining companion and I chose the seven-course menu.
While each plate is a small work of art, the setting helps create the right mood, too. Floor-to-ceiling glass wine holders line the wall, and if that does not inspire diners to taste a glass, the room-length photo mural of champagne — or sparkling wine — bubbles will. The pattern on the napkins even matches the tablecloth.
At a dinner service, Fargione sends out two treats before the main event. A teacup of butternut squash soup topped with foam boasts a velvety texture, bright orange color and a crispy basil leaf, one of those creative details that sets the stage for what’s to come. The other amuse-bouche, an Ahi tuna lollipop, comes complete with an actual lollipop stick and introduces an anise flavor that re-emerges throughout the night. The tuna’s natural flavor is the star, and a small cube of red-pepper gelee adds creativity to the bite.
Each new dish continues to highlight detail. The knowledgeable and attentive staffers list the ingredients of each course as they present it. The collection of plates, bowls and cups of all shapes and sizes looks as if each was specially designed for the food it holds. New place settings come out with each course.
The tasting experience begins with an olive oil sampler, with three oils from northern Italy down to Sicily. (They’re best tasted north to south.) Along with the olive oil are three separate sea salts infused with Chianti, basil and black olives. The bread basket provides ample options for soaking, dipping and tasting. Varieties include focaccia topped with caramelized onions; long, crispy breadsticks; and an olive-flecked bread.
Combinations abound, and the experimentation is fun. The Chianti salt, a deep red, has more than a hint of wine flavor to it, while the olive bread paired with the olive salt is a briny paradise.
As for the anise theme, it shows up prominently in the fennel shavings with salmon and a Sambuca-braised lamb with fennel sauce. The peppery flavor dominates more so than the garlic or oregano one might expect from an Italian restaurant.
The baked sea bass is a favorite. The perfectly cooked, meaty fish comes with a mild celery puree but picks up a spicy blast from a curry salt rub. After eating this dish, celery is no longer just a component of mirepoix or a vehicle for cream cheese or peanut butter — it’s an ingredient all on its own. The accompanying pickled purple potatoes add vinegar and salt, while the “charcoal oil,” a jet-black concoction of what looks like something found at the bottom of an oven, brings to mind grill-like flavors.
A long, rectangular dish holds a roasted baby beet salad. The different colored beets are soft but not mushy and contrast with gritty mix of ground coffee, almonds and morel mushrooms. All these earthy tastes would be good on their own, but the chef adds a dollop of goat cheese gelato to the plate. This takes an already creamy cheese and creates one of the smoothest textures known to this reviewer. A perfect fork of beet pressed into the grit and topped off with a smidge of the gelato took a familiar flavor combination to a fine-cuisine level.
Beets also appear in the pasta course, lending a deep pink hue to the tortelli, which are round like tortellini but stuffed like ravioli. The two pasta pillows are filled with a dense fonduta cheese.
For another course, a small pitcher of creamy chestnut soup is poured into a bowl over a portion of buffalo ricotta, dime-sized pieces of quail sausage and small slices of goose liver. The broth has a nutty flavor punctured by tastes of the slightly gamey sausage. The ricotta offers an occasional surprise of brightness.
For dessert, candied hazelnuts accompany an espresso ice cream and a whipped cream-topped shot glass of tequila and cappuccino. It takes a few taps of the shot glass to get the cream out, but the dessert is a fitting end to a fantastic meal.
Elisir may be one of the newest places in a crowded restaurant town, but with great food, even better service and an elegant atmosphere, it is bound to claim a spot on the must-try list.
427 11th St. NW (between Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street)
Prices: A seven-course tasting menu is $75 per person (without wine pairings); a 10-course tasting menu is $95. A la carte, first courses range from $16 to $22, main courses range from $26 to $38.