Wednesday, April 27, 2011

la la fiola

Last night I dined with another gastronome at the newly opened Fiola, the restaurant heralding the return to DC of Chef Fabio Trabocchi. This was a bit of blow-out treat, at least for me, but we just had to see what Trabocchi was turning out at this more casual and more rustic attempt at a high-end, traditional Italian spot in downtown DC.

Knowing we were going to run the gamut of vegetables, cheese, pasta, fish, and meat, but considering that we both prefer red wine, I found a very modestly priced 2007 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo on the list that I thought would carry us through -- and it did. The wine list actually has a pleasantly surprising number of bottles in the $30-55 range, particularly if you stick with the Italians (and why wouldn't you here?). It's a nice touch, one too often not considered here in the District, where wine lists often appear to be a second thought, if a thought at all.

We started with the Apulia Buffalo Mozzarella, Roasted Tomatoes, Pesto of Basil Genovese.The mozzarella was wonderful, so fresh and creamy it was almost more like burrata (I could have sworn the server actually said "burrata," which was not on the menu last night, when he set it down, even – and it turns out the online sample menu does call this “La Burrata”). One of the wonderful aspects of the pesto was that it was not overwhelmed with cheese or garlic; the basil shone, highlighting the mild mozzarella, and the roasted tomatoes' sweetness really tied it together. We also had the Salad of Violet Baby Artichokes, Spring Fava Beans, Mint, and English Peas. The delicate flavors of each item melded with the pea puree to create a vegetal representation of spring in a bowl; the ingredients were clearly of high quality and allowed to speak for themselves, and they did.

Next we shared a pasta course, the special of Spaghetti, Sea Urchin, Crab, Chile. The urchin was whipped into a sauce for the al dente pasta, dotted with fresh lump crab and enough red chile flake to cut the unctuousness of the dish and bring it to life. Sweet (from the crab), spicy (from the chile), savory (from the urchin), this dish sang; my friend said he could have licked the plate clean.

We knew going in we were going to overorder so that we could taste a lot of items (hey, that’s what leftovers are for!), so it was two entrees. Playing a little game of traditional dining role reversal, he went for fish and I for meat. The Veal Chop, Wild Mushrooms, Jerusalem Artichokes, Alba Hazelnuts was one of the best pieces of meat I have eaten in a long time. The thick chop was cooked to a perfect medium rare, with what was essentially duxelles tucked under a wrapper of just-crisp-enough prosciutto, so each bite had a medley of texture as well as incredible flavor. The hazelnut/sunchoke puree added a nice depth, the two elements contributing nuttiness in different ways. It was just outstanding.

Amazingly to me, though, the richness of the dish didn't overwhelm the tastes I had of the Branzino, Brodetto of Clams and Tomato, which was once again perfectly cooked, the creamy, dense flesh flaking with a touch of the fork. The fish-stock based broth had a smokiness to it that kicked everything into gear, and the plump, tender clams added a bit of salinity. This is definitely a go-to dish.

The place was jumping; yes, it does get a little loud, but I also think it may depend where you are in the room; away from the brick walls near the kitchen seemed a bit quieter. Our server, a young man who said he'd just relocated from another Italian restaurant downtown, was attentive but unobtrusive, although I got the inkling he thought our constant discussion of food (both what we were eating and just general interest in dining) was somewhat hilarious. He also had fun when he set down our individual plate of petit fours, which included doll-sized versions of chocolate-chip macaron – they should sell bags of these, as it’s easily the best macaron I’ve had in DC thus far – a gianduja cookie topped with a hazelnut tuile, and an apricot shortbread, reminiscent of a Linzer torte, or a jammy dodger, perhaps.

Oh, and dessert! The Fennel Gelato, Blood Orange, Olive Oil Semolina Cake ... creamy but refreshing, this could almost serve as an intermezzo, a twist on the traditional sorbet used for that type of course. So could the Lemon and Basil Granita atop the Zuppa Inglese (basically a strawberry trifle), wonderfully sweet and sour, just what was needed at the end of the meal (and the night). I can imagine that one is going to sell like mad out on the patio during the dog days of summer. Wow. 

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