- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2002

"Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." That's what the new International Spy Museum is all about: deception. But Zola, the jazzy new restaurant that is part of the Spy Museum complex in the renovated historic Le Droit Building on F Street in downtown Washington, is not the least deceptive. It's everything a good spy, a la OO7, should be: sophisticated, seductive and full of surprises.

The restaurant named for Emile Zola, the French writer who took up the cause of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, unjustly accused of spying in 1894 is a knockout. It is across the street from the National Portrait Gallery on the F and Eighth streets corner of the block-long turn-of-the-century jewel.

A warren of artists' studios had fallen into hopeless disrepair, but the renovation has kept the graceful facade of the building, and the interior walls and staircase have been incorporated by designers Theo Adamstein and Olvia Demetriou into a stunning ensemble.

Brown-and-black-checked carpet dampens noise; tables are smooth brown and black wood; in the center of three of the four dining rooms, which flow gracefully into one another, is a barrellike oval wooden table covered with wineglasses and bottles of the numerous wines offered by the glass.

The walls between the rooms are covered with large, mysterious glass panels of stills from the world of film noir we dined with Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli ("The Third Man") shimmering in the distance.

Red velvet booths run the length of the dining rooms. Each has a mirror reflecting the room; a small square window cut into the center of each mirror provides a view of the kitchen. Oval openings cut through the booths permit diners to spy on their neighbors. Although the openings are of different heights and sizes, they line up so that guests in the corridor between the bar and the dining rooms can see across all four rooms without being able to see the diners in the booths. Sleight of hand? Trompe l'oeil? Perhaps just an illusion.

Washington artist Jim Sanborn has created codelike impressions of words and symbols that glow on backlighted acrylic panels lining the entrance corridor, and authentic declassified documents line the corridor between the kitchen and the dining rooms. Numerous other witty and elegant touches incorporate a subtle spy theme such as a revolving wall and some cozy, tucked away nooks and crannies for intimate exchanges.

Zola's chef, Phillip Carrol, has designed a menu of "straightforward American cuisine" that has nothing to do with espionage. It's interesting, honest, aboveboard and very good.

Starters are outstanding: a creamy risotto combining roasted crunchy sweet corn, bits of smoky ham, a brilliant red-pepper syrup and a topping of three crisp fried oysters is sensational, a marvelous combination of taste and texture.

Similarly, a chowder of corn and mussels with a touch of bacon and a tiny corn flan floating in the middle is a delight. It's creamy but not heavy, and the mussels are sweet, barely cooked. The flan adds a nice surprise to the dish.

Tuna tartar is topped with a dollop of whipped lemon cream and served with cucumber salad and taro chips. It's a refreshing dish, again a nice combination of flavors. Grilled roja sausage is a rich, dark, soft sausage served with a delicious grilled mango with a peachlike consistency and slightly spicy Caribbean salsa. An unusual and interesting dish.

Main courses are equally successful combinations of the familiar with offbeat touches. Delicate rockfish is braised and served with mussels, little clams and potatoes in a fragrant saffron-and-garlic broth.

Slices of medium-rare grilled lamb loin are paired with a lamb sausage and garlic-rubbed pita bread. The lamb is superb, fork-tender and delicious. Equally well prepared is the roast chicken. Half a small chicken is roasted, deboned and served with a tomato-raisin compote, a perfect foil.

The only disappointment was a grilled New York strip steak. Although cooked as ordered, the steak was on the tough side, and the Cheddar potato cake accompanying it was cold and heavy. A serving of spicy house-made steak sauce helped, but James Bond would not be pleased.

Lighter main courses on the dinner menu include roast pork loin on a sweet-potato roll and a lobster roll. The lobster is fresh, sweet and nicely sauced with a light mayonnaise, although there was no hint of the toasted almonds or mint mentioned in the menu description. Crisp french fries and a scoop of carrot vegetable slaw are the accompanying sides. Both sandwiches are available on the lunch and bar menus.

Unfortunately, the roll itself was a bit stale. For a real New England lobster roll, a simple hot dog roll should be fresh and soft or lightly toasted. The bread served at the table, whether sweet-potato rolls or baguette slices, suffers the same defect. It isn't quite fresh.

The kitchen, like many others, has a heavy hand with salt. For example, the lamb, the risotto and the excellent creamed spinach served as a side dish would be even better with less salt.

Desserts include a light lemon pudding and a smooth, creamy chocolate fondue with chunks of fresh fruit.

Though Chef Carroll celebrates "the cultural diversity and the natural bounty" of the United States, the wine list is a marvelous eclectic ensemble of wines from all over the world, although the majority are from California. American wines include several from Virginia and New York; European bottles come from Austria, Corsica, Bulgaria and Hungary as well as the usual countries. South Africa, South America, Australia and even Israel are represented. Almost two dozen half-bottles and a dozen magnums are available.

Service is smooth and professional. If you want to have fun and enjoy some good food and wine, Zola's is a sure bet and that's not a secret.

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