- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 29, 2005

The promise is here: a new chef, well-located space, an interesting menu and a well-priced wine list, but there’s good and not so good at Extra Virgin, the new restaurant on the corner of 28th and Randolph Streets in Arlington’s Shirlington mini restaurant row.

Extra Virgin is a bar, lounge and restaurant rolled into one. It’s a lively place, especially from Wednesday through Saturday, when the restaurant offers its patrons live music, mostly jazz or country rock from the likes of the Judge Smith duo, Greg Jenkins Jazz Trio, or Paul Lewis solo.

Whether that’s a good idea depends on the amplification. It’s fine for the lounge and bar patrons to renounce conversation in order to listen, but the ritual of dinner includes conversation, which can be difficult against what sounds like the beat, beat, beat of an amplified tom-tom.

The decor is in gold and maroon in the curtains, the upholstered banquettes and booths and the striking metallic decorations on the wall in Georgia O’Keeffe flower shapes. The attractive wooden tables are simple, and black-painted pipes are exposed in the ceiling. The large windows offer daytime and evening views of a relatively busy neighborhood. The atmosphere is contemporary yet comfortable.

A recent dinner began well with a basket of warm, chewy rosemary bread and a dish of olive oil — extra virgin, to be sure — with grated Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top. The bread is house-made and consistently excellent, be it tomato-topped focaccia, crusty French or rosemary.

A special of sardines, battered and deep-fried tempura-style, succeeded. The sardines were excellent, the batter not too heavy and the beignets an unusual and tasty way of serving the little fish. The accompanying garlicky aioli was a fine addition of zest to the dish.

The menu starters, or antipasti, served only at dinner, include a napoleon of shrimp; roasted sweet onion stuffed with pork sausage and mozzarella; a trio of sausages served with wild mushrooms; and chestnut soup as well as a soup of the day.

On several occasions, the special soup was a rich, golden pumpkin soup topped with a small ball of luscious, creamy mozzarella and a sprinkling of greens. Had the soup been hot rather than lukewarm, it would have been even better. Temperature appears to be a problem in the kitchen. Every dish we sampled, with the exception of the sardines, came to the table warm, not hot.

Salads also are hearty appetizers. The menu includes a radicchio salad enhanced with poached pears, gorgonzola cheese and walnuts, and a mozzarella, beets and red onion confit combination. The “Romana” is a Caesar salad served in a bowl made of Parmesan cheese. The dressing is heavy on anchovies, giving a slightly fishy taste to the greens.

Unfortunately, the main courses did not live up to the promise of the antipasti. Pork piccata with braised cabbage and grilled polenta arrived on a large plate covered entirely by the food swimming in a thin brown sauce. Almost everything on the white plate was brown: the thin slices of pork, the covering layer of cabbage, which in turn was covered with mushrooms. A slice of soggy polenta added a touch of pale yellow. The pork was tender and good, and the cabbage might have been prepared in an interesting manner, but there was so much food, presented so unappetizingly, that it was hard to savor any of it.

Chicken breast, rolled and stuffed with spinach, suffered a similar fate. The portion was huge and daunting. The chicken was tender and well-cooked, but it lacked definition and character.

Pastas, available at both lunch and dinner, are made in-house for the most part. Veal ravioli consists of an enormous portion of about two dozen little dumplinglike ravioli stuffed with smoothly ground veal in a watery butter sauce. Although the menu speaks of fresh sage and Parmesan in the sauce, there was no sage and only a hint of the cheese. Instead, the dish was topped with crunchy, crisp-fried parsley. Unfortunately, the ravioli had not been cooked sufficiently, so the raw flour taste prevailed.

Pastas are not available in half portions, but a single portion is more than ample as a shared appetizer. Some other pasta dishes are pappardelle with a wild boar ragu; linguine with mussels, shrimp and calamari in a spicy tomato sauce; and pasta tossed with smoked mozzarella, tomatoes and pork sausage.

Main courses are limited to sauteed sea bass, medallion of roasted salmon stuffed with shrimp mousse, braised lamb shank, and New York strip steak in addition to the chicken and pork and a special of the day both at lunch and dinner. At lunch, the restaurant grills calamari and a fish of the day and also prepares a seafood stew.

At lunch, three sandwiches on house-made focaccia are available, as are a selection of pizzas cooked in a wood-burning oven. Toppings include the classic Margherita, marinara (tomato and anchovies), bianca (mozzarella with sausage and red onion), prosciutto and arugula and a “pizza pesto” with pesto Genovese and oven-dried tomatoes.

A trio of pears is an excellent dessert. A whole poached pear is dipped in chocolate sauce, framed on one side by a scoop of creamy pear sorbet and on the other by a spoonful of warm, buttery pear tart. Delicious.

Service is attentive and courteous, although the wait between courses can be a trifle long. Extra Virgin has the potential of a fine restaurant under the guidance of the new chef, but there’s a way to go.

RESTAURANT: Extra Virgin, 4053 S. 28th St., Arlington; 703/998-8474

HOURS: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, with brunch on Sunday; happy hour, 3:30 to 7:30 p.m.; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. daily, somewhat later on weekends; entertainment, 6:30 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and 8 p.m. to midnight Thursday to Saturday

PRICES: Appetizers and salads, $8 to $11 (dinner); pastas, $16 to $20 (dinner), $12 to $14 (lunch); main courses, $20 to $26 (dinner), $10 to $15 (lunch); sandwiches and pizzas, $8 to $10 (lunch only); desserts, $7 to $9

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards.

PARKING: Ample street parking and free public lot across the street

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible.

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