- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Dish is the new name of the old River Cafe on 25th Street NW in Foggy Bottom, but there’s more than just a changed name. The restaurant and the adjoining hotel, still called the River Inn, have been rejuvenated by the talented architectural team of Adamson and Demetriou — and there’s a new chef and an ambitious new menu.

Dish is a splendid addition to Foggy Bottom — a perfect location for Kennedy Center pre- or even post-performance meals (as long as you get there before 11 p.m.). The scene is lively; the food, on the whole, is good; and the hotel, like the restaurant, is stylish, elegant and well-priced.

Dish is small — there’s room for fewer than 50 people. A little bar with six stools is tucked into a corner; tables of light wood are spaced nicely; windows the length of the 25th Street side give the room a spacious, airy feel. A wonderful 8-foot diptych of one of William Wegman’s Weimaraners graces the wall opposite the entrance. It’s a portrait of a very male dog reclining in total bliss, a study both witty and endearing.

The kitchen is manned by executive chef Ron Reda, who began his cooking career on a submarine. He was in charge of the White House mess under President Clinton and most recently was banquet chef at 15 RIA.

Mr. Reda prepares an American menu. Many of the main courses use sugar to sweeten glazes, sauces and a wonderful and unusual corn bread served with the rack of lamb or as a side dish. The chef is much in evidence in the dining room, chatting with customers.

Many of Dish’s dishes are superb; others are not. Among the stars on the menu are the meatloaf, the rack of lamb and the blackened pork chop, winners all.

The meatloaf is deliciously moist, a complex combination of ingredients that makes it one of the best restaurant meatloaves I have tasted. “Mom” is to be complimented for her recipe. The accompanying “mushroom sauce” is a sophisticated ragout of wild mushrooms that elevates the dish to an elegance beyond its humble origin. The meatloaf reappears in sandwich form at lunch with a variety of toppings.

The rack of lamb, which is cooked to order, is another wonder, tender and juicy. It’s coated with a sweet barbecue sauce that adds an unusual quality to the meat. It’s finger-licking good, especially if you pick up the bones to get the last bits of meat.

Best of all, perhaps, are the pork chops. Mr. Reda explains that he brines the meat, which leaves it almost fork-tender. The meat is delicious and beautifully balanced by a vanilla-enhanced poached pear, a lovely alternative to the ubiquitous apple ordinarily served with pork.

“Mac and Cheese” is not “kool noodles, great cheese,” as the menu describes this curious dish. It is a substantial bowl of penne with a somewhat bland sauce made of several cheeses with a sprinkle of crispy buttered crumbs on top. It misses the target; it’s neither light enough for a starter nor sufficiently substantial as a main course. When compared to such outstanding dishes as the pork chop ($14.95), the grilled sirloin ($15.95) or grilled salmon ($12.95), $13.95 for the mac seems unusually dear.

Starters (cutely called “First Dish”) are good, as a whole. Crispy oysters, served with a cool cucumber yogurt sauce, are light and crunchy, though sometimes cooked just a little too long. Tequila-cured salmon carpaccio is not a carpaccio but more akin to smoked salmon in flavor. (Carpaccio by definition is raw. When cured, whether with tequila or dill and salt as for gravlax, salmon is no longer raw.) The fish is presented like a cornet with a tuft of mache coming from the open end and a splash of basil oil on the side. It’s a pleasant appetizer.

Similarly, crab salad is a delightful starter (or very light lunch main course). A small mound of good, fresh crab, mixed with a little mustard seed and other herbs, prettily topped with three slices of mango, a dollop of avocado puree and a sprinkling of bright orange lumpfish caviar is not only attractive to look at on its stark white plate, but the taste is good. Had the mango been ripe, it would have been even better.

Mozzarella and tomato, unfortunately, had no taste. A whole tomato (unpeeled) is sliced not quite all the way through; cold slices of mozzarella are tucked into the slits; and the tomato is placed on a bed of greens decorated with a little pesto and basil oil. Several slices of Parmesan are placed on top. Had the tomato been ripe, it would have been a nice, fresh salad, although Parmesan is too strong a cheese to mix with the mozzarella. But the tomato was a tasteless winter version, and there’s no excuse for serving a tomato like that in Washington in July.

A popular salad is “the wedge,” a chunk of iceberg lettuce dressed with green goddess dressing and crumbled bacon. It’s refreshing and a nice change from the usual blue cheese dressing.

The creamy spinach dip with roasted artichokes is a good appetizer to share. A large and filling portion, it’s served with excellent spicy pita chips.

All the appetizers are available at lunch. Lunchtime main courses include a chicken paillard, pan-seared rockfish, grilled shrimp and an excellent salmon salad. This is not salmon unsold from last night’s dinner but is a nice-size portion of salmon filet, grilled to order and served on a bed of mixed greens with bits of blue cheese, cranraisins and pistachios in a balsamic vinaigrette. Perfect for a summer day.

Sandwiches include a fried chicken sandwich, a turkey and Monterey Jack cheese melt, the meatloaf sandwich and a shrimp BLT. Unfortunately, the shrimp in the BLT were so salty as to be almost inedible, ruining an otherwise good sandwich. The spicy mayonnaise is sufficiently tangy to make any additional seasoning unnecessary.

Desserts are on the sweet side. Rice pudding with dried cranberries instead of raisins is filling and good; Bubba’s brownie is a delicious square of light cakelike brownie, served with vanilla ice cream. Peachy keen is a mixture of fresh peaches and brioche pastry. The peaches are not peeled, and the pastry wasn’t cooked through.

Dish has a short, interesting wine list of bottles from all over the world, including several pleasant Virginia wines. There’s only one full bottle for less than $30; prices range from $30 to $60 with wines by the glass between $6 and $14.


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