Plaudits: Washingtonian 2011 Top 100, Washingtonian 2010 #48
Official Friend of DCWD Rajistan wanted to have a Restaurant Week dinner with me, but posited that, as is our wont, that it be an adventure. Using that as my cue, I set up a reservation at a restaurant I'd been chasing for a while without a dinner partner, Arlington's Tallula.
Unfortunately, I picked a night where the Metro was single-tracking (well, Metro, like it always does, was just being ridiculously inconvenient about its maintenance schedule, so in this case it was a Saturday night). So between that, the cold, and the surprisingly long walk from the Clarendon station, we ended up being no-showed by the restaurant (the first such ignominy for me). This was totally our fault, but it would have helped if the hostess was a little more sympathetic; in fact, her snippiness almost caused us to leave, out of principle (I get it, I suck, but try and be a little helpful). Luckily, I think Rajistan charmed someone, because we got seated in 20 minutes.
Tallula actually has a more casual side (EatBar) where we grabbed a drink in the meantime. We overheard the bartender say to someone, "A lot of people actually come here on first dates." This is something I can easily believe: the vibe is pretty fun but funky. On the EatBar side, it's a dimly lit small bar, with medieval-esque chandeliers and silver vents above. Lit candles are set into tiled wall boxes and there's sort of a columned veranda in the middle of the room.
On the Tallula side, it's much more typical, a color palette of crimson red and orange accented with gold curtains; even the hanging lights are orange-red. Every table seems like a booth of some sort, made up of cushioned velvet seating. In the center of the dining area is an island of half-booths surrounding a fountain made of black stones, while the far wall is lined with more half booths, cornered off by larger circular booths. There are some full booths on the near wall and by the wine-rack divider, in both two and four-top varieties, so there's plenty of cute places, but for the most part, you're sort of on top of the couple next to you. Other than, there's a chef's counter in the back. It's all pretty charming actually.
Look, I'm going to just run a spoiler alert for you right now. This review might be so full of superlatives, it might seem disingenuous. But seriously, some of these things were that good.
For our first course, Rajistan ordered the crispy dragon creek oysters served on an apple "risotto," a cauliflower-bacon puree, and caper brown butter. Holy hell. The oysters were good, a beautiful silky smooth on the inside with a nice crunch to the outside. By themselves, they would have been fine. But the other components of the dish just absolutely made this dish to die for. The apple risotto was a revelation, a wonderful combination of creaminess and tart. Savory notes were kicked up by the puree, with a faint bacon taste that was both mesmerizing and not overpowering. And then the brown butter to tie it all together. Just great.
For my part, I had a similarly good experience with my dish: hand rolled pici noodle with pork belly, clams, chilis, and preserved lemon. I'd previously had the pork belly/clams combination, and wondered if this was a common thing. This was a much better version of the dish, with fresher and cleaner flavors. The house made pasta helped, but it was the brilliantly simple pork belly and the lightness of the lemon with just a hint of heat from the chilis that made it all so vibrant. A little bit of grit from the clams made it a little bit unpleasant, but the taste was so nice, I sort of ignored it.
For an entree, Rajistan had the apple cider-braised pork shoulder roulade served with sweet potato, red cabbage, and chard. The pork shoulder was pretty juicy, and the apple cider braise was nice. In fact, there was a nice crisp on the roulade that was very pleasant texturally. I will say that the sides were fairly regular, but I thought in general the dish was a solid entry.
Luckily, I won the entree battle with my pan-roasted Pekin duck breast with Brussels sprouts, bacon, salsify, and pears, in a juniper duck jus. I think only the duck I had at 2941 compares to this one in terms of how well it was cooked: beautifully pink in the center, with that delicious interplay of fat and crisp on the skin. Tender to the point of almost melting. Add that onto wonderfully soft Brussels sprouts and a bed of flavorful salsify and it was just a great dish.
For dessert, Rajistan ordered the bittersweet chocolate souffle cake with pistachio ice cream and plumped sour cherries. Compared to the chocolate cake the night before, this was a much more measured and restrained approach, which was very much appreciated. The pistachio ice cream was a nice touch for both of us as well (apparently just like me, South Asians love pistachio).
For my part, I orderd the eggnog bread pudding (clearly again, jealous of the bread pudding from Oya the night before), served with gingerbread ice cream and glazed cranberries. The bread pudding was nice and soft, but it was the gingerbread ice cream that stole the show, tasting basically just like straight cardamom (and frankly, that's what made it so amazing). Still the bread pudding was definitely solid.
Just some outstanding dishes, and amazing quality of flavor. A little grit, and only one good dish away from five stars.
Food Rating: **** 1/2 (out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Casual
Bar Rating: Classy Crowd to Hipster Hangout
Cost: $$$ (out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
Pairing: Head over to Clarendon Fitness, buy some running gear, and take a jog together around pretty downtown Clarendon. Just avoid the weird intersections.