- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2003

Nectar and ambrosia — the food and drink of the gods. Nectar is a daringly pretentious name for the Foggy Bottom restaurant on New Hampshire Avenue NW that occupies the space where Zuki Moon charmed diners for several years.

Pretension, in fact, is the name of the game, and while not living up to godlike standards, the food under the practiced helm of chef Jamison Blankenship, formerly of Tahoga in Georgetown, is nevertheless very good.

The nectar consists of unfamiliar wines from less-well-known regions of familiar countries — Australia, South Africa, Italy, Spain and occasionally the Pacific Coast states. Every wine can be ordered by the bottle or by the glass, at $7 to $100 per glass (yes, $100 is correct — the full bottle is $450). Descriptions by the maitre d’ may impress the intimidated but are not helpful: “a wine with smoky components with interesting structure” or “a wine reminiscent of cherries and plums.” To give this unusual list its due, the wines tend to be of high quality.

Let’s start at the beginning: The restaurant is small, so a hungry diner will, of course, make a reservation. We requested 8 or 8:30 p.m. Neither was possible; it had to be 7:45, 8:45 or 9. Yet when we arrived at 7:45, half the tables were empty, filling up gradually over the next hour; the table next to ours remained empty throughout the evening. So why not accommodate a guest’s request?

Next, the menu. There are six appetizers and six main courses; no daily specials. Of the entrees, four are fish, one is duck (“Peking style,” the waiter told us) and one is veal cheeks. No chicken, no beef, no pork, no lamb, no veal chop or scaloppini, no pasta or other farinaceous main course, no vegetarian dishes. Not much choice, especially for the robust diner.

Nectar also is the sweet liquid that tiny hummingbirds sip from flowers. Nectar’s portions are hummingbird size, often at eagle-size prices.

Despite attitude, Nectar is a charming small restaurant — cozy, comfortable and quiet. The decor is simple, accentuated by blown-up photographs on the walls of fruits and vegetables. Service is competent, and most of what is set before you is delicious. Mr. Blankenship goes to great lengths to make each dish look beautiful and taste good.

He is, in fact, one of Washington’s best. His style is straightforward, yet sophisticated, accentuating the flavors of his seasonal ingredients. No fancy towers, with the food mashed together on the plate in the current fashion, or dozens of ingredients to confuse the palate. Each elegant dish is a small jewel shining on a large plate (very Japanese), with subtle, interesting highlights.

Chilled cucumber soup, served over a small heap of diced beets and dill, is like a bright green gazpacho. It’s thicker than the usual cucumber soup; the addition of yogurt mutes the cucumber just enough to make the taste interesting.

A starter of soft-shell crab is half a dismembered crab, deep-fried in a somewhat heavy batter. The dish must be piping hot, or the batter becomes dense and chewy, and indeed it was. The crab is served with three excellent dipping sauces: cucumber (similar to the soup), a mustardy sauce and sweet chili with yogurt. A bit more crab for the sauce would have been nice.

Beet salad is actually a mixture of a handful of greens with wonderfully sweet red beet quarters with a little blue cheese and a fresh, light vinaigrette. It’s a fine starter or a nice change after the entree.

Perhaps Mr. Blankenship’s outstanding appetizer is a ruler-shaped slice of raw pink tuna, measuring about an inch by 5 inches. The fish is topped with a mix of sun-dried tomatoes, ground pine nuts, basil and a dash of hot pepper. The effect is hot and sweet, of sea and earth. A few bites is all you get, but this truly is ambrosial.

Aside from the veal cheeks served with a lentil squash puree — more of a winter dish than one for a Washington summer — and duck, the four fish main courses are bass, tuna, halibut and scallops, each with distinct garnishments.

The scallops are wonderful: Five perfectly uniform ovals, each topped with a tiny French bean and a julienne of not-too-spicy chorizo, look beautiful on the large white plate. The scallops have been dusted ever so delicately with pistachio and curry, giving them the suggestion of crunchiness, and cooked just long enough to keep them from getting tough. It’s as fine a preparation as can be imagined.

The lunch menu is much the same as for dinner, with the addition of a steak and French fries in lieu of the duck, a tuna burger instead of tuna as a main course and a deep-fried soft-shell crab sandwich. The steak is too thin to be cooked rare, as requested; the “frites” are served hot and salty, not outstanding but well prepared. The steak comes topped with a sweet-sour cranberry chutney reminiscent of cooked red cabbage.

Both the baked Alaska and a peach upside-down tart disappointed. Baked Alaska is rarely found on today’s menus; it’s a dessert that can be sensational when straight out of the oven, with the meringue still warm and the ice cream inside softened, a hot-and-cold melange that tickles the tongue. Nectar’s came out of the refrigerator, not the oven; the meringue tasted of marshmallow cream rather than a real, airy meringue, and the ice cream was so hard it was almost inedible. Too bad; it’s a very good idea. The peach tart had little peach and quite a lot of dry cake. Had the proportions been reversed, it could have been successful.

If Nectar would step down from Olympus and be a bit more tolerant of mere mortals, it could be a wonderful addition to the Foggy Bottom dining scene. Despite the delicious food, it’s more fun to go around the corner to its sister restaurant, Dish, and dig into the fabulous pork chop and heavenly cornbread. Sometimes less is just less.

RESTAURANT: Nectar, 824 New Hampshire Ave. NW; 202/298-8085

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

PRICES: Appetizers $7 to $14 (lunch), $9 to $15 (dinner); entrees $12 to $17 (lunch), $24 to $28 (dinner); desserts $8 to $11

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking is very difficult, but valet parking is available next door in the George Washington University Inn for $6 at lunch and dinner

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible.

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