- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Farrah Olivia is a beautiful little girl whose photographs adorn the walls of her dad’s (Morou Outtara) new restaurant, Farrah Olivia, in Old Town Alexandria in the space formerly occupied by the Blue Point Grill.

The restaurant shares a foyer with Balducci’s grocery store. It’s a small, elegant restaurant where Morou, as he prefers to be called, prepares what he describes as “creative American” food.

Morou hails from the Ivory Coast and has lived in Washington since 1988. He has cooked at Red Sage and Signatures, where he made his reputation with innovation and imagination. By Morou’s definition, “creative American” means American food with African under- and overtones. The menu reflects his African influences in the use of tapioca, palm jus, melon seed milk and various spices.

The eclectic nature of the dishes includes combinations such as pork loin with pork rind tandoori and chocolate merlot, anise-spiced salmon with yucca couscous and smoked shrimp essence, rack of lamb with plantain loaf or tuna with a red wine sauce and spicy apples.

Despite a somewhat precious quality to the combination of elements in the dishes, many are delicious and all are interesting and beautiful to behold. Meals begin with a basket of good bread and a quartet of butters that vary from meal to meal. Service can be slow, so the bread and butters are welcome. Sometimes the chef sends out a special treat — one evening it was a lovely slice of smoked tuna.

Soups are particularly splendid. Cream of Parmesan soup made with a vegetable stock is a silken delight as cinnamon wafts through the soup gently, adding just a touch of the unusual. Roasted squash soup is marvelous, a blend of the vegetable with touches of curry and cream and topped with a crunchy bit of pecan crumble and a frothy dollop of yogurt. Rich, fragrant, completely satisfying, Morou’s squash soup is one of the best in town.

A classic butter-poached lobster, sweet and juicy, arrives on a bed of rice-resembling tapioca with a hint of vanilla. A delicious, subtle dish.

An appetizer of sourdough flan, served with romaine lettuce and what the menu describes as “fresh sardines,” does not quite succeed. The small, slightly grainy flan comes hidden under the romaine. It combines nicely with the lettuce, but the single small sardine had both an excessively pungent fishy aroma and taste, and was far from fresh.

Shocked tuna is an elegant ensemble of tiny squares of sushi-grade tuna that has been dipped in hot water and marinated, accompanied by a few slices of paper-thin green apple, merlot powder and a splash of pureed apple with a wasabi sauce. The dish is stylishly elegant and the flavors merge well to create a harmonious ensemble.

Several of the other starters include a hanger tartare with grated radish, duck confit with monkfish foie gras — the waiter assured us that it’s really made of monkfish liver — and fritters of black-eyed peas.

For lunch, there’s a cod cake with vegetable chips and goat cheese pot stickers in lemongrass broth. Main courses include a wide variety of fish and meat, ranging from roast rack of lamb and an Angus strip steak to duck breast and pork loin, or wild barramundi (the extraordinary Australian lungfish that changes sexes at mid-life, suggesting an interesting romance on the high seas) to white tuna. As a whole, these dishes do not quite measure up to the standard of the appetizers.

Chicken breast served with nuts and cauliflower puree is somewhat dry and disappointing, although the puree is sensational. Quail disappoints, too. Although nicely tender and well cooked, the quail is stuffed with vegetables and flavored with chorizo oil that gives the vegetables a salty, bacon-like flavor. The tiny deep-fried legs add an amusing touch, but the elements of the dish don’t quite work.

Three plump scallops, on the other hand, are perfectly cooked and perfectly seasoned. They are served on a bed of miniature diced mixed vegetables that include a dice of very salty Mexican chorizo. The sausage overpowers the vegetables in their fine hollandaiselike sauce.

The vegetarian dish is an African-influenced eggplant casserole topped with crunchy buttered bread crumbs. It’s filling and tasty but would make a better accompaniment than a main dish. At $18 for dinner and $14 for lunch, the casserole is overpriced.

There are no sandwiches and no entree salads on the lunch menu, but there’s plenty to choose from and still keep the meal light. Our waiter warns that portions are small, but, in fact, almost all are good-sized.

Desserts, like many of Morou’s dishes, are imaginative and taste as good as they look. A melange of cake, ice cream and fresh pineapple is refreshing and unusual. The menu offers an artisan cheese course with cheeses coming from farms throughout the United States, all identified on the menu.

Perhaps the best way to taste the chef’s cooking is to order one of the tasting menus. There are three choices for dinner: five courses for $62 ($52 for a vegetarian meal); seven courses for $72; and 14 courses for $125. Featured wine pairings are an additional $28, $38 and $68.

Aside from the numbered courses, Morou usually sends out an additional tidbit between courses. At lunch, a three-course menu is offered for $28 ($25 for vegetarian) with asterisks indicating the menu items included in the prix fixe.

Morou is making a fine start with his Farrah Olivia. Not everything works, but everything is worth trying.

RESTAURANT: Farrah Olivia, 600 Franklin St., Alexandria; 703/778-2233

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday; brunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Starters $8 to $12 (lunch), $8 to $15 (dinner); main courses $14 to $22 (lunch), $18 to $32 (dinner); desserts $9

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Garage with complimentary parking beneath the restaurant and street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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