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Thursday, August 2, 2012
Plaudits: Washingtonian 2012 Top 100
Neighborhood: Downtown, Gallery Place/Chinatown
After a year of dancing around it and so many close calls, we finally landed at Mike Isabella's first restaurant, Graffiato (heck, we even made it to his second one first). With me on this trip, Official Co-Writer/Girlfriend of DCWD Texas, and Official Friend of DCWD Swizzle.
The key with Graffiato is that, a year plus after the former Top Chef contestant opened up his first restaurant, the place still remains hip. Which is to say that even on this Monday night, the bar is crowded and the noise is appreciable. The first floor's design aids and abets this atmosphere. A thin 13-seat bar sits on your left as you enter, gradually transitioning into an 11-seat bar that wraps around the central pizza oven. This leaves little standing space in the bar area, so much so that the few tables that do make up the first floor seating area (mostly booths, but importantly, a pair of two-tops), feel squeezed in. Woe to any potential daters that end up there; you might as well pull up a chair for the happy hour patrons who will be basically on top of you.
The second floor is a much more traditional space, with a look that feels almost like a cafeteria. Booths along one wall with four-tops otherwise form the seating, with an open kitchen to the back and big windows to the front. Decor remains consistent throughout the restaurant: a black on white theme, with exposed brick, a high exposed ceiling, and motifs like pizza paddles, garage lights, and painted reeds abound; in two words, hip modernity.
It being small plates (like his former employers and his new restaurant), we decided to order four dishes and a pizza. Normally we'd have preferred a wide selection, but most of the pastas caught our attention. The lone exception was (of course) burrata, served with heirloom tomatoes, melon, and saba. As burratas go, this wasn't anything particularly special, though taken on its own, it was fairly tasty. The saba was a little lost, and tomatoes were too thickly cut to do anything but provide slight flavoring and color contrast. Still, solid start.
The night would get much better though; each pasta course was delicious in its own right. The fettucini served in pesto sauce, with blue crab, summer squash, and arugala was solid - a good kind of bitter with positive earthy notes of nut and greens and the mush and slight bitter of good, fresh crab. Though it got lost amongst the other pastas, in retrospect, this was a pretty steady composition.
We also tried the "everyone's-talking-about-it" dish from Graffiato: a sweet corn agnolotti with chanterelles and pine nuts. Among my compatriots, I was probably the biggest fan of the plate, with a pleasant sweet-not-saccharine taste that I found amusing and new for pasta. The chanterelles and pine nuts were fine, in that they did ground the dish a little bit, but didn't necessarily add too much to the table for me. Which was perfectly okay, since the centerpiece shone through so much.
But everyone's clear favorite was the roasted potato gnocchi, topped with summer truffles and wild mushrooms. Talk about earthiness and bold flavor; this dish had it in spades. Succulent gnocchi melted together with the truffles, which added this full, creamy feeling to the whole dish. Again, the mushrooms on the dish served to ground the whole endeavor, but also added a good dose of heartiness to the plate. After one bite, we were tempted to order two more servings.
And we probably would have, if not for the pizza we ordered: (what else) the Jersey Shore (fried calamari, tomato, provolone, cherry pepper aioli). It's been said before, but the way the calamari fit with the pizza was quite a surprise, probably because the squid had been crisped very well. The aioli gave a pretty sharp kick to each bite, though more in the zip department than the heat one. By itself, it was a good dish; combined with the pasta, an excellent finisher.
Sadly though, we pushed on toward dessert. The worst-kept-secret zeppoles no longer being offered, we settled on splitting the warm chocolate cake with salted caramel gelato. Tepidly warm, it also suffered from being bland, tasting more like something made out of a box than what we might have expected. Lackluster finish to an otherwise exceptional meal.
Stick with the pastas and a few select pizzas, and the restaurant absolutely sparkles. A few missteps here and there though.
Food Rating: **** 1/2 (out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Casual
Bar Rating: Suits Scene to Party in the USA
Vibe: Energetic to Noisy
Cost: $$$ (out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
Pairing: Ever go to a museum and think, this would be great but I want more mini golf. Problem solved: mini golf in the National Building Museum.