By Suzanne Struglinski - 03/28/12 11:32 PM EDT
When a food as simple as Brussels sprouts elicits a closed-eyed sigh and an audible “Mmmm,” you know you are on to something good.
That something is Unum, a new Georgetown restaurant from husband-and-wife team Phillip Blane and Laura Schiller. They followed their passion for food in creating a homey neighborhood spot for American cooking in the old Mendocino Grille space at the front end of the neighborhood’s high-traffic M Street. Diners venturing over from Capitol Hill might recognize Schiller’s face, or at least her name: By day, she’s chief of staff to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
The cheese and charcuterie-plate starter maintains that vibe. A platter of Humboldt Fog goat cheese and bresaola or Maytag blue cheese with American prosciutto is a salty, satisfying treat. As for drinks, the attentive staff is helpful in finding the right wine or cocktail to go along with any meal. It becomes clear quickly that this is not a pretentious, special-occasion-only destination. This is a place to enjoy and return to often — without breaking the bank.
Blane, a former sous chef at Equinox, spent a decade in healthcare administration before trading in the office for an apron. Whether choosing a collection of small plates or regular entrees, his uncomplicated and creative dishes are familiar, yet offer new tastes.
Like those Brussels sprouts.
Although the mini-cabbages are offered as a side dish, they should not be overlooked. The kitchen roasts them to a perfect texture — soft but not squishy. The vegetables, cut in half, come out with a slight char and are mixed with cashews and raisins. I would eat Brussels sprouts every day if I knew how to make them taste this good.
Another favorite dish during a recent visit was the rosemary gnocchi in a truffle butter sauce. Though these Italian potato dumplings can often be heavy, Blane’s are melt-in-your-mouth, cotton-soft puffs of buttery dough. Your nose gets the woodsy rosemary aroma first, and then your eyes confirm the herb’s presence in the green flecks studded throughout each pasta pillow. Cranberries, butternut squash and oyster mushrooms punctuate the truffle butter sauce. One lesson to learn from my experience: Opt for the entree-size portion.
The pasta success continues with the boneless short-rib pasta. Shredded, red-wine-braised short rib is mixed in with tagliatelle — long flat noodles similar to fettuccine — and root vegetables. The stew-like small plate is perfect winter-weather food.
The rockfish bouillabaisse is a seafood potpourri of generous chunks of the meaty fish, littleneck clams, mussels and shrimp, all swimming in a saffron broth. Blane finds the right balance of salt and seasoning that brings out the flavors of the ingredients without overpowering them. The rockfish is fork-tender and absorbs the slightly spicy juice. A parsnip and potato cake is a great vehicle for lapping up as much of the flavorful broth as a spoonful can hold.
Another entree of note is a tender and moist smoked duck breast with a side of whipped potatoes. Though they’re classified as “whipped,” the potatoes exist in that perfect space between “whipped” and “mashed” — not too thick, not too thin.
It’s common for restaurant-goers to have “order envy,” which occurs when diners realize they would have enjoyed what their dining companion is eating more than what they originally ordered. At Unum, the verdict this time was that there were no losers at the table.
My dining companion was just as happy with his orders as I was with mine — a rare occurrence in our food outings — right down to the last course. For one dessert, we had the ricotta beignets, cheese-filled doughnuts topped with a blueberry cardamom sauce. Though rolled in sugar, the fried dough balls have an almost savory taste, owing to the cheese.
We also got the chocolate ganache, which offers a spoonful of chocolate as dense as peanut butter, with almond pavlova and chocolate coffee crumbles and banana sorbet. The crumbles added texture to the ganache’s smoothness, and the sorbet upped the sweet factor.
Unum comes from E Pluribus Unum, the Latin phrase on the United States seal that translates to “Out of many, one.” But at this restaurant, the translation would be, “Out of many, yum.”