- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 7, 2004

Want to learn to tango? Or dance the salsa? Or dine on delectable Argentine cuisine? At the Divino Lounge on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda, you can do all three.

Divino Lounge is not a South American Arthur Murray’s, but for a $10 tuition fee, there are tango lessons Wednesday evenings and salsa lessons Friday evenings, all followed by dancing. All that and supper, too.

Divino is an Argentine restaurant that believes in good times. The front of the restaurant is a bar and lounge-cum-dance-floor. The back is a narrow room with two rows of tables: small round ones against one wall and rectangular ones with banquettes on the opposite wall. Painted dark red, one wall is mirrored while the other has interesting paintings by a Brazilian artist.

The food is primarily Argentine, which means meat, lots of meat — and it’s pretty good. Let’s begin with appetizers. A dish of tapas variadas, easily shared among two or three, changes with every meal. “Chef’s choice” is how the menu describes the four little plates.

At a recent meal, the tapas were a delicious selection of olives and tiny gherkins, two pieces of a bland Spanish tortilla (a potato frittata), a small portion of a tasty mushroom ragout and four thin triangles of hard cheese. Not a lot, but quite good. Sometimes the tapas include shrimp, sometimes sausage, sometimes vegetables. The choice is the chef’s, after all.

The empanadas are excellent flaky pastries filled with ground beef and a bit of onion. Good-size shrimp in a fragrant garlic sauce are tender and tasty. Other starters include artichokes filled with spinach and seafood, peppers stuffed with mushrooms and shrimps, and crabmeat gratin.

Luncheon appetizers include falafel patties with green asparagus and grilled sardines with vegetables.

The “special salad” one evening — mango and shrimp with leafy greens — sounded wonderful but wasn’t. The mango was green, with the consistency of an apple and with no flavor whatsoever. The small, cold shrimp were equally tasteless. The lettuces and other greens were fine, but they are the same salad served with all of the grilled meats.

Other salads include asparagus with cured salmon, heart of palm with Belgian endive and roasted peppers with manchego cheese.

The high point of the Divino Lounge menu is the parrilla — the Argentine grilled meats. The parrillada for two is an enormous assortment of meat: short ribs; “flap” meat; which is similar to skirt steak; blood sausage; sweetbreads and Argentine sausage.

The meats come to the table in what looks like an individual grill, except that it has no means of heat and thus doesn’t keep anything warm. Nevertheless, for anyone yearning for an authentic touch of Argentina, this is a good choice. The grillade comes with excellent french fries; a mixed-green salad; and delicious chimichurri sauce, a mixture of oil, vinegar, garlic and parsley.

The short ribs are very good, full of flavor and enhanced by the chimichurri sauce. The sausage also is excellent and on the mild rather than spicy side. But if you do not like blood sausage, sweetbreads (which unfortunately are not cleaned of their membranes and thus are not easy to eat) and rather tough meat, choose the grilled New York strip steak, a beef filet, lamb chops or grilled chicken.

Divino Lounge serves Argentine beef, which, unlike American beef, is not cornfed and thus marbled; consequently, it is not as tender as Americans expect. Argentine beef is cut differently, too, but the waiter will explain the unfamiliar cuts.

The steak comes in two sizes — 12 ounces and 6 ounces. The smaller one is a nice-sized portion and excellent, tender and flavorful. Similarly, the grilled chicken served in a garlic sauce is moist and first rate. The chicken is served with interesting mashed potatoes flavored with flecks of parsley and olive oil rather than butter.

Meat is not the only option at Divino Lounge. There are a number of rice dishes, casseroles and paellas, including a black paella made with squid ink, as well as fish and pasta. The kitchen prepares a seafood brochette, served with fresh vegetables, grilled salmon steak, scallops and a fish of the day.

At lunch, in addition to the starters and salads served in the evening and several of the grilled entrees, a hamburger, a cold roast beef sandwich and a grilled beef tenderloin sandwich are available. The last is served with plantain chips. During the week, an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet ($7.95) includes salad, mixed steamed vegetables, a paella and a beef dish.

Desserts include rice pudding, crepes filled with dulce de leche and a pleasant flan also made with dulce de leche. It’s sweeter and thicker than the usual flan, but it is smooth and glides down easily at the end of a meaty Argentine dinner. Dulce de leche is a combination of full milk and sugar cooked slowly to a thick, creamlike consistency. It is used frequently in Spanish, Argentine and Mexican cooking.

Spanish, Chilean and some Argentine wines predominate, although there are no Argentine wines by the glass. Service can be slow, but it is willing, and everyone is pleasant and friendly; the rolls are warm and freshly out of the oven, and deliciously garlicky aromas waft into the dining room.

And if it’s Friday, hang around, listen to the Brazilian music and dance the salsa and the merengue, whether you’ve taken a lesson or not.

RESTAURANT: Divino Lounge, 7345-B Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 240/497-0300

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Starters and salads $3 to $7 (lunch), $5 to $10 (dinner); entrees $8 to $15 (lunch), $14 to $25 (dinner); desserts $5 to $8

PARKING: Metered public parking lot around the corner on Montgomery Street

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Bethesda

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