By Elana Schor - 10/05/07 06:43 PM EDT
Attention to small gestures is often the mark of a winning new restaurant. In the recent onrush of dining trends, from tapas to fusion to street food, the power of a simple flourish is lost on many chefs — but Alison Swope knows the secret.
At Swope’s Restaurant K, where the Washington veteran is now dishing out culinary bear hugs, the start and finish of each meal are emblematic of her philosophy. Before the first course, Swope delivers each table an amuse-bouche that primes the palate with her favorite ingredients, and she surprises departing diners with a twist on the typical starlight mints: cinnamon Atomic Fireballs.
By the time I finished the tiny amuse-bouche, a smoky mélange of diced eggplant with Moroccan harissa oil on tissue-thin homemade flatbread, I knew that “new American” was too small of a label for Swope’s crush of ideas. Forging an unlikely alliance with the surf-and-turf specialists at McCormick & Schmick’s, Swope has spared no effort in her blitz of comforting dishes.
“To some diners, it may seem a bit confusing that you have a pork shank for dinner and enchiladas for lunch,” Swope told me. “But at the same time, it does make sense if you know where I come from and where my history is in cooking and in restaurants.”
Indeed, Swope’s menu reflects her adventurous and varied background in the capital’s best kitchens.
Her Mexican past, at Andale in Penn Quarter and Santa Fe East in Old Town, show up at Restaurant K in a gorgeously gooey Cuban sandwich and the tender fried plantains that carry stunning lamb sausage with goat cheese. Her contemporary-American stint at New Heights in Woodley Park helps bring lush and quirky salads to life, such as beets, baby arugula and gorgonzola, or applewood bacon and dates atop romaine hearts.
The generously structured menu at Restaurant K can walk the line between awe-inspiring and overwhelming, but Swope keeps her flights of fancy grounded by working within classical territory. On her cocktail menu, featuring lip-smacking infused liquors, the Bloody Mary arrives with a skewer of olive and shrimp … and salami, and brie, and a petite French cornichon pickle. “Is she serious?” I asked myself. Then I took one sip of the peppercorn-steeped vodka and fell in love.
The wine list is equally compelling, offering a chocolatey Malbec at the low end of the price spectrum and pricier pinot noirs laden with tannins. The after-dinner drinks, particularly a brandy-spiked coffee, are entire desserts unto themselves.
“I want to present something that’s accessible to as wide a range of people as possible,” Swope said.
Restaurant K does deftly juggle masculine dishes, offering rib-eye steak with local smoked mozzarella, with lighter fare. I was particularly taken with the pan-seared tuna steak surrounded by emerald pods of bok choy and resting on an addictively crunchy basmati rice “flapjack.” The Native American-style salmon, despite a kicky sauce of pumpkin seed and Chipotle peppers, tasted decidedly average.
The service at Swope’s spot mirrors her overall approach, leaving customers cared for but perhaps too closely watched. Restaurant K is the rare boîte where you might prefer to arrive at prime time, for a weekday lunch or early dinner. At less crowded hours, the cavernous dark-wood dining room can feel a bit isolating.
Decadent cheeses and dark ancient grains abound on Swope’s palette, pleasing to even occasional fans of strong flavors. Buckwheat pasta is paired with dried cherries and gorgonzola for a plate where you barely notice the missing meat, and the aforementioned pork shank is a revelation: Simmered in mild pasilla chiles and red wine, it comes with peculiar but perfect lemon-thyme popovers.
The dessert lineup is also unfailingly opulent, with none of the feather-light small bites that the city’s chefs have increasingly gravitated towards. Swope said she prefers cooked desserts and aims to evoke “certain feelings” of soothing indulgence, and she does not disappoint.
Banana fritters come with a pecan crust and alluring cardamom caramel, made with goat cheese rather than the traditional cow. Out of a distaste for the gelatinous density of most cheesecakes, I initially bypassed Swope’s white chocolate variety with a crunchy coconut trim, but it turned out to be a fluffy knockout.
For those who can’t handle another heavy bite after being enveloped in Swope’s embrace, order the homemade coconut lime sorbet. The snow-white cloud finishes with a cleansing touch of citrus that stays with you — even after a few free Atomic Fireballs.
Restaurant K by Alison Swope
1700 K St. N.W., between 17th and 18th Sts.