- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Old-time Washingtonians cannot but marvel at the transformation of the neighborhood around 14th and P streets Northwest. Only yesterday, it ranged from dicey to dangerous, but now there’s life and excitement on the streets, and new restaurants and shops seem to sprout overnight near the bustling Whole Foods Market and the beautiful new Studio Theatre.

Merkado Kitchen is an inventive newcomer, a sister of the popular Logan Tavern just a few doors down P Street. Like Logan Tavern, Merkado Kitchen is a friendly neighborhood restaurant with good food, bare-bones decor and good service. The menus, though, have nothing in common.

On entering the restaurant, diners at Merkado Kitchen see a wall, next to the bar, covered with bud vases holding single red roses — changed several times weekly, our waiter told us. The other walls are of warm ochre with large stencils of people’s faces — some smiling, some serious. Tables and banquettes along the wall are comfortably spaced, encouraging conversation.

Merkado Kitchen describes itself as a Latin-Asian Bar & Grill, and its menu sparkles with pleasant surprises. Heat and spice are the centerpieces of the food here. Not everything works perfectly, but lots of dishes do, and it’s fun to try them all.

Crab and shrimp spring roll with a drizzle of wasabi lime aioli is one of the less spicy appetizers. The creamy seafood mixture is nicely set off by the crunchy exterior, with just a touch of liveliness, thanks to the wasabi. Crispy fried oysters likewise have just the suggestion of pepper in the mango tartar sauce. The oysters are barely cooked in their crisp batter, a perfect version of fried oysters.

The steamed mussels make a wonderful, genuinely Latin-Asian dish, served in a deliciously spicy broth. The Latin addition is a dice of chorizo; the Asian part consists of shredded Asian vegetables and glass noodles. The dish can be ordered as a starter or main course.

An unusual appetizer is the combination of sea scallops and duck breast, each with an interesting, tangy sauce. The two don’t really go together, but each is excellent and tender — the scallops moist and the small pieces of duck breast lightly pink.

Braised chicken empanadas are good but less adventurous than most of the starters, despite their spicy salsa. A simple salad of greens with spiced roasted cashew nuts is dressed with a tart vinaigrette and is a light, satisfying appetizer.

Grilled squid is stuffed with crabmeat and shrimp in a coconut curry; tuna sashimi is seared and served with a miso-sake reduction; a Cuban pork quesadilla is served with spicy salsa; and a large chili is stuffed with goat cheese and beans.

The kitchen prepares two soups: a rich roasted sweet potato bisque with avocado and poblano pepper cream, and a classic tortilla soup with chicken and udon noodles.

Main courses are more than generous in size. Asopao is a Puerto Rican version of paella but served in a soup bowl rather than a paella pan. The dish, which has many of the ingredients of a Spanish paella, such as seafood, chicken and rice, also has beans, chorizo and pork. It resembles a stew rather than what we usually think of as paella. It’s a rich and filling dish, with each ingredient carefully prepared.

Steak nuevo Latino is a tender, marinated, sliced flank steak, served in a rich mojo sauce with fried plantain slices and grilled asparagus. It’s a good beef dish and would be even better if the plantains were freshly cooked rather than served cold and dry.

Barbecued short ribs make another fine beef dish, served with sauteed spinach. Flavor and texture are first-rate, with good smoky undertones.

Merkado Kitchen serves several fish dishes, including grilled tuna, seared salmon in miso with shrimp risotto, and coconut-crusted halibut with a pineapple-and-tomato salsa. Roast chicken with rice and beans or an Asian chicken salad with tofu nuggets and fried wontons are other options for a lighter entree.

The kitchen prepares several vegetarian dishes, such as spicy tofu with Korean vegetable stew and an arugula, asparagus and avocado salad. Side dishes such as rice and beans, garlic spinach, french fries with garlic and rosemary, and Japanese-style dashi risotto may be put together as a vegetarian alternative.

Among the desserts, a rich, creamy caramelized banana spring roll is served with vanilla ice cream. The liquid chocolate center of an individually sized chocolate cake was not very liquid, but the cake was good; the accompanying coconut cream had a mere wisp of coconut flavor.

The wine list has some very nice wines from California, Argentina and Spain, many of them less than $30.

Merkado Kitchen is the sort of place where diners feel comfortable, can enjoy an interesting meal and won’t wince with alarm when the bill arrives.

RESTAURANT: Merkado Kitchen, 1443 P St. NW; 202/299-0018

HOURS: Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until midnight Friday and Saturday (the restaurant may close earlier or later, depending on customer demand); brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and until 5 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: First courses, $5 to $11; entrees, $13.50 to $22; desserts, $6; brunch breakfast plates, $7 to $10; sandwiches and salads, $8.50 to $10

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Dupont Circle (with a good walk)

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