- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The long, narrow space on St. Elmo Avenue in Bethesda is no stranger to the aromas of a good kitchen. A Thai restaurant was here not so long ago, and now there’s David Craig, a new contemporary American restaurant, the passion of a fine chef from downtown.

David Craig, the chef, operates two dining rooms in tandem: The front room has a couple of booths along one wall with a small bar behind them and tables for two along the other wall; the back room has a glass window showing the chef at work. White walls with a few discreetly colored abstract paintings, white tablecloths and candles complete the decor. Simple and sophisticated.

Mr. Craig has a solid history of cooking. He has worked for several restaurants in Europe and for Jean Louis Palladin and Roberto Donna in Washington, where he also was chef at the Tabard Inn. Now he has his own place with owner-manager John Fielding.

David Craig, the restaurant, has an ambitious menu. For the most part, dishes are well-conceived and carefully prepared with first-rate ingredients; many show fine touches of creativity and originality; some are a bit over the top.

The menu, which changes from time to time, begins with a choice of salads, mussels, mushroom carpaccio with potato gnocchi, and soups: potato soup with a leek flan and crumbled bacon, and an oyster stew, also with bacon and leeks plus white wine and cream.

Salads include a combination of frisee lettuce, bacon, hard-cooked egg, beets, walnuts and blue cheese; a spinach salad with serrano ham, Manchego cheese, raisins and almonds; and a fine Caesar salad with delicious little garlic croutons.

Pastas can be ordered in half or full portions. Half portions are ample, and even a half could be shared, perhaps with a shared salad, as a fine first course. Spinach-and-ricotta ravioli are delicious. The medium-size ravioli are tender, and their filling is creamy and subtle. The pasta is napped with a light tomato cream sauce that complements the ravioli nicely and does not overpower the filling.

Hand-cut flat noodles are sauced with a ragu of meat and mushrooms, and black noodles are combined with shrimp, garlic, anchovies and capers in a white wine and tomato sauce. The chef also makes a risotto incorporating Maine lobster, fava beans, prosciutto and mascarpone. That’s my choice for my next visit.

Fish is seared (salmon), sauteed (halibut) or roasted (a whole loup de mer, or sea bass). Each is accompanied by a different potato preparation — Idaho, saffron and fingerling, respectively — and varying sauces. Scallops are paired with veal cheeks and served with tomato and Gorgonzola polenta, French string beans, basil pesto and a veal reduction.

The menu offers three meat dishes: chicken two ways (a breast with prosciutto and fontina cheese and a leg stuffed with wild mushrooms), duck, and beef.

Duck is served three ways: a wonderfully tender seared-to-order breast, a slightly spicy dried cherry sausage the size of a breakfast link, and a small flan of duck liver. The combination is an interesting mix of textures and flavors. The flan is the least successful of the three, having neither the texture of a pate nor the assertiveness of sauteed liver. The duck is accompanied by roasted fingerling potatoes and rests in a sweet cherry duck sauce.

Grilled beef tenderloin is excellent. The Angus beef is fork-tender; its flavor is rich and satisfying. Unfortunately, the green beans served with the beef are virtually raw. Beans have a wonderful flavor and fragrance, none of which comes out until they are cooked beyond the crisp stage, but it’s hard to buck the raw trend of the moment. The red-wine reduction on which the filet is served is too sweet for the robust beef and tastes much like the cherry sauce that naps the duck.

Desserts are as imaginative as the rest of the menu: toasted pound cake with chocolate and caramel sauces; pink grapefruit sabayon gratinee; chocolate bread pudding with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream. The bread pudding is an unusual mound of small warm knobs of chocolate bread pudding that tastes much like cake. It’s unusual and very good.

The wine list of approximately a dozen each of white and red wines is a good international assortment, ranging among the whites from a Sonoma County sauvignon blanc to a Sancerre from the Loire Valley and a gruner veltliner from Austria. Reds come primarily from France and California, but there are bottles from Spain, Argentina and Italy as well. Prices range from $26 to $99, with most bottles in the $40s.

Professionalism is what comes to mind at David Craig, beginning with the courteous greeting by the manager and extending to the pleasant service and the excellent, high-quality cuisine. Sometimes the wait between courses is a little long, but the end result is worth the wait. David Craig is indeed a welcome addition to the crowded Bethesda dining scene.

RESTAURANT: David Craig, 4924 St. Elmo Ave., Bethesda; 301/657-2484.

HOURS: 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday; until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: First courses, $8 to $12; pastas, $20 to $26 (half-portions, $12 to $16); main courses, $23 to $29; desserts, $8

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Metered street parking (until 10 p.m.); metered parking garage across the street

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Bethesda

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