- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 29, 2002

What a delight it is to have an almost perfect meal in pleasant surroundings served by a well-trained, friendly staff. That was our experience recently at 15 RIA, the new restaurant in the Washington Terrace Hotel at 1515 Rhode Island Ave.

The trend in first-class hotel restaurants in Washington is continuing, a return to the days when the good restaurants in most towns were in hotels.

15 RIA is low-key, small (70 seats) and comfortable, decorated in tones of brown and gold. Tables are plain, dark-wood. Upholstered benches offer cushions for the small of the back. Silk curtains drape the walls surmounted with small rectangular framed mirrors reflecting light and movement. A fireplace offers warmth on wintry days. The bar, on the street side of the restaurant, is spacious and inviting.

But it is the food that attracts at 15 RIA. Under the sure hand of Executive Chef Jamie Leeds, who comes to Washington from New York City and brings a touch of Big Apple sophistication, everything that comes to the table delights the palate.

Miss Leeds is interested in fresh local and regional products and has designed her menu to reflect what is available on the market each day. Her preparations are innovative without being fussy; she acknowledges trends in popular dishes without making them routine; and she marries meats and fish with side dishes that enhance each preparation. The choices are traditional but never boring.

For example, August is tomato time. The soup of the month is a "two tomato soup," a lovely presentation of half-yellow, half-red tomato soup. The yellow is slightly more acidic; the red sweeter and deeper in flavor as well as color. On top, Miss Leeds floats a triangle of pimento-cheese toast, which decorates and enhances the soup. Simple and perfect.

Variously hued heirloom tomatoes surround bibb lettuce leaves crowned with crumbled mild blue goat cheese in a fresh, simple, summery starter.

Lobster knish is a more complex first course. It's a real knish (the New York Jewish version of an empanada) but a sophisticated one without the heaviness of the typical knish. Miss Leeds fills her pastry with bits of lobster meat and mashed Yukon gold potatoes, and crowns it with a small lobster claw. The delicious pastry is surrounded by a thin, fragrant tarragon bordelaise sauce.

Crab cakes are accompanied by creamed fresh corn; tuna carpaccio comes with daikon radish and basil cream; mussels are steamed in beer rather than in white wine; and popcorn shrimp and calamari are enhanced with a peppery remoulade.

At both lunch and dinner, the menu offers monthly specials "meat & two." A different meat or fish dish is prepared for each day of the week and served with a choice of two of the daily sides, which vary according to what's in season.

We tried a Tuesday special of molasses-braised short ribs with sides of sauteed red chard and dandelion greens, and roasted sunburst squash. The beef was served on the bone; it was fork tender, and the molasses gives the beef a wonderful richness. The vegetables were sensational genuinely roasted and fresh as could be.

On Wednesdays, the dinner special this month is roast suckling pig, and at lunch the special is a lobster roll; on Thursdays, grilled baby lamb chops for dinner and pork sloppy Joan for lunch; and on Friday for dinner there's a whole roasted fish, and rockfish and chips at lunch.

Main courses, like the appetizers, vary only slightly between lunch and dinner with prices slightly lower at lunch. Diners can choose from four fish dishes, five meat and a vegetarian "grilled portobello au poivre," which offers garlic sourdough stuffing, carmelized onions, asparagus and squash.

The grilled chicken breasts are among the best in town. The meat is tender and juicy, and topped with a tiny dice of onions, olives and lemons. The accompanying mashed potatoes are equally excellent.

Hanger steak is served with baby arugula and wonderful not-greasy onion rings. The steak is served with a tangy, spicy, fruity marmalade and has none of the chewiness associated with that cut of meat. A side order of creamy cheese grits is a nice complement to the steak. The grits are course-ground, slightly cheesy and delicious. "Mac and cheese" is another old-fashioned side dish.

The only negative and it is a slight one is that the food in general is served closer to room temperature than hot, and onion rings should be hot to be at their best.

Sea scallops are also accompanied by grits, but with the addition of a sliver of foie gras, an unusual but surprisingly happy combination. The scallops, perfectly cooked to retain freshness and tenderness, have a slightly crunchy ancho chili coating.

Desserts should not be missed: Our table consumed an apple bread pudding in record time; a rich chocolate and hazelnut cake disappeared with equal delight.

Although 15 RIA's food prices are all reasonable, wines are expensive, with only two or three bottles costing less than $30. The restaurant does offer a number of half-bottles, a rare and much-needed addition to local wine lists.

15 RIA has a well-trained staff. Waiters are exceptionally courteous and helpful, without being obsequious, and everyone from the restaurant manager to the hostess went out of the way to be friendly and accommodating. 15 RIA is off to a fine start.

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