- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Viridian began its first culinary incarnation in November under the guidance of Sidra Forman, the force behind Ruppert’s, the onetime health-oriented restaurant on Seventh Street Northwest.

After a rocky start, co-owners Giorgio Furioso and Saied Azali brought in Antonio Burrell, formerly of Bistro Bis, as chef. Mr. Burrell is more inclined to a French format than Ms. Forman’s good vegan dishes, and now Viridian — on 14th Street Northwest — is off to a second start.

Mr. Burrell’s preparations are lovely to look at, tastefully prepared, and made with fine, fresh ingredients. Of the eight starters, six are cold. Mushrooms in a clear broth is a hot soup, and scallops on watermelon come to the table warm.

The scallops are excellent; the watermelon, strange as it sounds, is a nice contrast — warm on cool, tender on crunch and solid on fluid. The avocado puree on which the four or five scallops rest is without character and adds little but color to the dish.

A crab mixed with minced apple, ginger, yogurt and just a soupcon of mint is a fine salad served in a round of cucumber. It’s a refreshing and lovely combination of ingredients, all the elements blending well without intimidating the taste of the crab.

Another beautiful starter is a dish of a half-dozen miniature beets, ranging in size and in color from pink to deep red. The beets are halved horizontally and a little creamy goat cheese is spread across the middle of each. They’re served with small orange segments. The appearance of the dish — attractive hues of the vegetable on the white plate — makes it taste even better.

Watercress salad with a few thick slices of Asian pear and a meager sprinkling of blue cheese and pecans is pleasant, but it lacks dressing, which would add a little zing.

There’s zing aplenty in a main course of two succulent soft shell crabs in a tangy mustardy sauce, billed as a yellow curry vinaigrette. Brown rather than yellow and devoid of any hint of curry, the “vinaigrette” is sprightly and very good.

Soft shells are best, however, simply sauteed in butter, and, good as the sauce is in this case, the crab doesn’t need enhancement.

Grilled beef tenderloin and a roasted chicken breast are equally first rate. The steak is tender to the touch of the fork; it comes to the table cooked to order, with a garnish of two slices of roast potato and foie gras butter — a whipped spread with only the faintest hint of foie gras. The meat would be better served with a simple classic maitre d’hotel butter.

The chicken is succulent, well prepared and served on a small mound of delicious collard greens mixed with a little bacon and sherry vinegar, resulting in an almost sweet-sour taste.

The chef happily has put sweetbreads back on the menu, and his four crispy morsels are tasty indeed. The tiny lemon segments that accompany the sweetbreads — the capers were missing from my plate — add a slightly acidic bite to the dish, but $22 for four mouthfuls, unaccompanied by any sides, is expensive.

An organic pork chop served with apple-onion compote; wild Alaskan halibut with peas, morels and figs; tuna with roasted peppers; and gnocchi with mushrooms and fava beans round out the entree menu.

The waiter suggests ordering sides since main courses arrive naked if not nude on the plate. At a recent dinner, the $4 sides harkened to vegan days: curried quinoa, sesame green beans, red curry coconut milk bok choy, orange glazed fennel.

An Italian citrus cake with a creme anglaise studded with small segments of blood oranges is outstanding among the half-dozen desserts. The cake is moist, not overly sweet, delicate yet full of flavor. The creme anglaise, orange and sprinkling of crushed pistachios, make this an elegant finale to an excellent meal.

Viridian is in the 14th Street corridor, glowing and beginning to throb with hip. It’s next door to the Studio Theatre, convenient for pre- or post-theater dining. The large open space is very attractive, with rotating artwork on the plain white walls.

A video of scenes from nearby streets plays repeatedly on a screen behind the bar. The lighting is indirect and flattering, and the waiters are courteous and competent.

The art, chosen by Mr. Furioso, co-owner and painter-turned businessman, changes every two to three months; the current stunning work is by several local artists.

The menu changes every three weeks or so. The lunch menu, slightly less dear than dinner, offers several of the dinner appetizers. Main courses include several entree salads, such as tuna nicoise and a Caesar salad with grilled chicken, as well as sandwiches: crabcake, house-smoked trout, and hamburger. The sides, identical to those at dinner, cost $4.

Alas, the noise in the restaurant, though fashionable, is overpowering. Diners must shout to be heard by others at the table; the sound bounces from wall to ceiling and off the floor, despite the foam insulation on the bottom of each table.

The only other misses among the hits are underseasoned sauces and dressings; small portions, given the downtown prices; bread from an oven of modest ambition, and a limited list of expensive wines.

Nevertheless, Viridian is off to a good second start with Mr. Burrell at the helm. It joins Rice, Logan Tavern and Cafe Saint-Ex in the neighborhood’s burgeoning restaurant scene.

RESTAURANT: Viridian, 1515 14th St. NW; 202/234-1400

HOURS: Lunch Tuesday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 4:30 to 11 p.m.; Brunch Saturday and Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

PRICES: Starters, $5 to $9 (lunch), $5 to $12 (dinner); main courses, $10 to $15 (lunch), $14 to $26 (dinner); desserts, $8 to $10

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking; self-park lot next door $10 with restaurant validation

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: U Street (Green and Yellow lines)

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