Plaudits: Washingtonian 2009 #50, Washington City Paper's Young and Hungry's Top 50 Restaurants 2009
Neighborhood: Cleveland Park
Needing catch-up time with Official Friend of DCWD Juli, and with a LivingSocial deal in hand, we headed up to her neck of the woods for dinner at Cleveland Park's Dino.
The inside of Dino is at once surprising but to be expected. Surprising because its exterior belies its interior, expected because it fully represents the feel of "under the Tuscan sun" that one might expect if you knew anything about the restaurant. Immediately, upon entering, you are faced with a wine racks and a small circular bar. Directly behind that is the only thing approaching a booth, a small nook under a random mission tile roof. The rest of the downstairs consists of a small dining area of almost all two-tops and a small patio.
The second floor continues many of the themes; a color scheme of a more orange peach and ocher red, floral upholstery, hanging orange box lights. Again, the decor is something akin to rustic Tuscan: peeks of exposed brick behind plaster, oil paintings, a faint orange-ish glow to everything. Once more two-tops are the name of the game, with only a few large family-style group tables and the lone half-booth four-tops besides that.
Here's the thing. The only substantial thing I had ever heard about Dino was Official Friends of DCWD Ang and Mark's review for I Flip for Food, who had a disastrous service experience which obscured an otherwise enjoyable meal. Combined with its sudden disappearance from the Washingtonian Top 100 list, I had to come to dinner with serious doubts.
On the plus side, Dino was nothing but generous with their food, providing their full menu under their extended RW deal, which was nothing if not a breath of fresh air. This theme was repeated by their amuse-bouche, in actuality a three-part amuse: a creamy tomato-kale-red pepper soup, Tuscan beans on crostini, and deviled eggs with pesto. The soup was a very welcome surprise in its creaminess, but was unfortunately the first one we tasted, as the other two were blah (which begs the question of why the kitchen felt the need to push the other two). The deviled eggs were basically just a vehicle for the pesto instead of having any merit on their own, and to call the bean crostini bland would be an understatement. If I had doubts before, this wasn't an auspicious start.
My dubiousness wasn't helped by the fact that the restaurant was out of the restaurant's "signature" Tuscan scrapple, a "beggar's purse" of duck, pork, and veal sausage and something that I was amped to try. Instead, I ordered the "Italian kisses," pancetta-wrapped scallops with duck liver and dates in a tangerine marmalade. These tasted very much like bacon-wrapped dates (the namesake of this blog), but with a slight tang to it. Sadly though, the promise of duck liver and scallops went unfulfilled as I could barely taste either of them. Sad.
On the other hand, Juli ordered a dish I myself had been eying (for obvious reasons, if you know me at all): a three cheese polenta of white polenta mixed with asiago, fontal, gorgonzola, topped with a house sausage and tomato sauce. This was beautiful, wonderfully creamy and savory from the cheese, and with a whole host of flavors that are perfectly representative of Italian cuisine. Paired with our bottle of 2007 Rosso di Montalcino sangiovese, it was a start to the meal I wish I had ordered.
For entrees, I had a hard time deciding on a dish, but went with the waiter's suggestion of the pappardelle al cinghiale, a stew of wild boar and pork belly, tomatoes, onions, golden raisins, currants, celery, carrots, a red wine ragu, and grana cheese. Much like my appetizer, this was an okay dish that just wasn't as good as advertised because of the missing flavor of, or maybe even the lack of some of the key ingredients; I just wanted to have that sweet raisin taste, or the fat of the pork belly, and neither happened. The pasta was a little too past al dente for my liking, and the boar braise was not as stringy as other stews.
Juli ordered the wild king salmon with tomato, lime pepper, cuke salsa, and crispy potato. I'm not going to belabor this one too much, since this dish didn't really scream classic Italian cuisine to me, but it was bland and sort of unexciting. The salmon was a little overcooked in an attempt to get the skin to be crispy, but they were sort of outdone by the potatoes (which is a sad statement).
For dinner, Juli ordered the torte di pistachio, a Tuscan style pistachio crumble cake with fruit sauce, amaretto whipped cream, and a side of pistachio gelato. The cake tasted okay with some very pleasant pistachio flavors, but was sort of dry and otherwise forgettable. At least, her glass of limoncello with the dessert was nice.
I on the other hand had a very nice dessert, the "cappuccino du nutella," a teacup of nutella and mascarpone cream with bourbon soaked cherries and topped with an amaretto whipped cream and cocoa. This was beyond rich but in a nice way, silky and delicious especially when you unearthed one of the hidden cherries at the bottom of the cup. The combination of the hazelnut and the sweet "cherries jubilee" flavors was a perfect ending for me, even though at this point, the portions were so large, I couldn't finish it. Even though it didn't pair well with the moscato I ordered, it was nice.
I guess in point of fact, I had the opposite experience of Mark and Angela. The intangibles of the restaurant were fine: the service was unremarkable, the generosity of the RW menu was nice, and the portions were sizable. But the food was up-and-down; when Dino hit its marks, they were right on, but when they missed, it left you wondering what might have been had all the flavors had appeared as advertised. A meal that missed out on so many opportunities to be great.
Food Rating: ** 1/2 (out of 5)
Date Rating: 2.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Casual
Bar Rating: Classy Crowd
Cost: $$$$ (out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
Pairing: Dino sits across the street from one of the few old-school theaters in DC, the Uptown. I've been there twice (for midnight premieres of movies I would rather not reveal), and oddly enough this is the date that Mark and Ang had planned on their failed trip to Dino. All the same, it's a pretty, huge single screen theater.