- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2002

If goodwill made restaurants good enough, then Ortanique would be the best of the latest decorative eateries on the Washington scene to praise without reservations.
As it is, just several weeks into a slow opening, the colorful Caribbean-flavored place is a fine addition to what is becoming one of the most concentrated dining areas in the city. Ortanique, on 11th Street downtown, offers a little bit of everything for its clientele an attractive theatrical interior alongside a menu of great variety and taste, delivered with care and consideration for guests.
Which is one reason to recommend patronizing a restaurant in its shakedown phase: You are bound to get more attention than usual even if management still is working out the rough spots.
Coordination between service personnel and kitchen is not yet at its peak at Ortanique, but the staff certainly is conscientious: warm slices of garlic- and herb-buttered bread are served up at once; an attempt is made to rid the table of crumbs after the main course. The pile of voluntary customer-comment notes beside the front desk attests to efforts in this regard.
Main courses were slow to arrive during recent visits as our waiter at one point thoughtfully noted. When one entree was not cooked thoroughly enough and had to be sent back, the manager on duty apologized. The result was a complete replacement, done just right ("medium rare") as originally requested. And because the space is large enough seats for 120 in a pattern allowing for intimacy and, praises be, quiet enough for conversation there is no rushing of diners through a meal in order to accommodate the next round.
Curiously, as one of our party observed, Ortanique resembles the dining room of a cruise ship dressed up for a party on fantasy night. Handsome lamps sprout palm leaves. Gold draperies drop down from ceiling height outliningseparate tables on one side of the main room whose center is filled with comfortable booths that easily can seat four or six people. The ceiling is painted black in order to emphasize the decor below. Wait staff is costumed in black shirts with bright colored ties.
The space also includes a large mezzanine area for private parties. Future plans call for live music piano jazz and possibly Caribbean groups probably on weekends. Currently, piped-in rhythms are discreet even a sonorous drumbeat we heard in the background.
A jumbo TV screen over a small bar fronting a tropical fish acquarium is left over from the site's last incarnation as the BET on Jazz restaurant. Whether blessing or curse, the screen promises to be the centerpiece for such special celebratory occasions as the Superbowl.
Press materials identify chef Scott Houghton as a recruit from the restaurant's home base in Coral Gables, Fla. (another branch is in Las Vegas) working under the Florida restaurant's chef-owner Cindy Hutson who calls the chain's cuisine "comfort food with a kick to it."
The prevalence of rice and potatoes may be what she refers to rice and black beans that accompanies the pork chop, horseradish smashed potatoes with the tuna, jasmine rice with the bouillabase, truffled Yukon Gold potatoes with the rack of lamb.
Clearly, a lot of thought has gone into integrating food and decor, to offer the total theatrical experience that many restaurant patrons have grown to expect when they pay the equivalent of orchestra seats at a concert on their edible evening out.
The food, while expensive, is uneven and, typical of many tropical menus, leans on the sweet side. The range is expansive and impressive, however, as are the wine choices and specialty drink offerings. While deliberately themed as Caribbean in outlook, Ortanique the name comes from a Jamaican fruit that is a cross between an orange and a tangerine is fusion all the way. That can lean to some confusion in the combinations.
Red Thai gulf shrimp, for instance, a $29 main course one evening, also contains "Caribbean Crab & Conch Hash and Sweet Baby Peas." A $12 Vegetarian Peanut Stir Fry, usually found in Southeast Asian restaurants, was a pleasant if unexciting concoction of perfectly cooked ingredients.
Hot appetizers of note include curried crab cakes with a mango papaya salsa and conch fritters with sweet corn salsa. The surprise of the bunch was jerk rubbed Hudson Valley foie gras over a warm salad of mache, crisp potatoes and duck confit with burnt orange marmalade and Grand Marnier drizzle.
We passed that up as being too rich for a starter (and costly, too, at $28), opting instead for a simple fried calamari salad: crisp warm calamari over conventional mixed greens.
Entrees invariably come to the table topped with a vertical sprig of some sort: a tiny strip of fried pastry or a graceful piece of yucca. Dinner plates are large and attractive, bearing a design of oranges around a wide rim. These are the restaurant's signature touches.
Their specialties clearly are West Indian style sauces. A bouillabaise, priced up to $33 a portion, was a great success even if it could have used more of the succulent coconut curried broth. Scallops, shrimp and a piece of white filet were wonderfully tender and well proportioned.
The jerk chicken penne pasta (at $11, the least expensive entree) didn't compare at all with the delicious jerk double pork chop that came swathed in an exotic mixture of guava Bacardi Spice rum sauce, South American rice and beans, and "drunken" raisin tropical fruit flambe.
The pedigree of a sauteed Bahamian black grouper had an even longer list of ingredients (including "lemon orange boniato sweet plantain mash") but the end result was not as scintillating as one might wish. It was overly sweet as I suspect the guava barbecued salmon might be.
Better go with the ahi tuna, marinated in sesame oil and spices.
The sweet trend was apparent, too, in the tropical drinks. Mojitos go down almost too easily when there is a liberal dose of cointreau or sugar. At $9, the Ortanique martini elixir bears almost too much orange juice and not enough rum but it is an elegant concoction. (Not recommended for breakfast.)
Finally, few diners can or should resist the dessert selection. Go, do not wait, for the ginger pie with warm candied ginger in an exceedingly light puff pastry and the Tortuga rum cake that is topped with a Bacardi rum sauce and rum raisin whipped cream. Tropical fruit soup, an apple tart, and a well-flavored caramel mousse timbale are other temptations on the list.
The Bacardi company must have invested in the enterprise, given the reptition of its name on the menu. No matter, the liberal use of rum is welcome, especially on these cold winter days.

RESTAURANT: Ortanique: Cuisine of the Sun, 730 11th St. NW (opposite the Grand Hyatt Hotel); 202/393-0975
HOURS: Lunch noon to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
COST: Soup $5 to $10; salads $7 to $11; appetizers $8 to $28; sandwiches $9 to $11; entrees $11 to $33; desserts $8 and $9; speciality drinks $9; wines $7 to $10 by the glass and from $24 to $375 by the bottle
CREDIT CARDS: All major credit cards
PARKING: Valet (at night), street or in several nearby garages

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