- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Don’t be fooled by the unprepossessing look of Dahlia, the nouvelle American restaurant in Spring Valley’s minimall on Massachusetts Avenue Northwest.

The dining room will remind you of the 1940s (and maybe even the infamous Black Dahlia murder mystery). It’s all here: straightforward white tablecloths at dinner and bare tables at lunch; blinds rather than curtains on the window and the emergency exit door in a corner of the room; faux leather banquettes along three sides of the square room that need some mending in spots; photographs on the wall a bit too small for diners to see what they represent, even in daylight. A small vase with a chrysanthemum decorates each table in the evening.

At Dahlia, it’s not the surroundings but the food that counts, and chef-owner David Scribner (son of longtime Choral Arts Society of Washington Director Norman Scribner) is performing a first-class job in his neighborhood restaurant.

The menu is relatively modest: half a dozen appetizers and 10 entrees and a smattering of pizzas. Portions are large, and each dish is accompanied with appropriate sides.

At a recent dinner, we reluctantly passed on the tempting list of salads — beets with goat cheese; grilled scallops with fennel and tomato; mango with mozzarella and prosciutto; and mixed lettuces with pear, walnut and blue cheese — to share one of the pizzas.

The caprese pizza, topped with mozzarella and diced fresh yellow and red tomatoes, was perfect. The crust was thin yet nicely chewy, and the topping, with a faint dusting of basil pesto, mixed flavors in a particularly satisfying way. Pizzas are large enough to share among two or even three diners as a starter.

Pizzas are topped with a variety of creative elements: chicken breast, red onion, prosciutto and spinach; portobello mushrooms, tomato, eggplant, onion and spinach; lamb sausage, roasted tomato and caramelized onion; flank steak, caramelized onions and goat cheese; and a sweet-salty-spicy combination of prosciutto, pineapple and jalapeno pepper.

Moving on to the main courses, the garlic-and herb-roasted chicken is a tour de force. Half a small chicken is roasted so that the skin is crisp, yet the flesh remains juicy and tender. It may be the best roasted chicken in town. Served with an enormous baked sweet potato and a mix of grilled zucchini, yellow squash and onions, this is a memorable dish not to be missed. Simplicity, perfectly prepared.

Grilled flank steak, which has been marinated to assure tenderness, is served on a bed of fine mashed Yukon potatoes with an accompaniment of caramelized onions, blue cheese and grilled zucchini. The meat is piled on top of the potatoes, which makes a fashionable but unattractive mound on the plate when a diner cuts the meat. Better to serve the potatoes on the side. (Boo to the chef who started this custom.)

Parmesan-crusted lamb chops, served with grilled ratatouille, round out the meat courses. The rest of the main courses are from stream and sea: seared salmon with a potato cake and crushed avocado; crab cakes with Napa cabbage slaw and shoestring potatoes; pan-fried trout stuffed with lemon, herbs and capers; scallops with grits, prosciutto and brown butter; and roasted halibut with white corn, roasted tomatoes and cilantro lime butter.

Dahlia’s lunch menu offers lighter fare, mostly salads that tend to be the same mix of lettuces in a light vinaigrette with different toppings. Tuna nicoise is made with small pieces of fresh tuna cooked medium rare. Seared Atlantic salmon salad is garnished with little grapefruit segments and a small serving of well-prepared fish, again cooked medium rare to retain the moistness of the salmon.

The pear, walnut and blue cheese salad is mostly lettuce with some slender slices of fruit and a sprinkling of cheese and nuts. The spinach-and-mushroom quiche is a small round with a mound of mixed greens.

Sandwiches include a grilled hamburger with Muenster cheese and good, hot french fries, nicely salted; grilled merguez lamb sausage on pita bread with potato salad and a yogurt sauce; a warm turkey club; and a terrific crab cake sandwich. The good-sized cake is all fresh crab of the best quality, sauteed just long enough to warm it all the way through with a slightly crisp exterior. The crab cake is served on a hamburger bun with a slice of ripe tomato, french fries and a small dish of excellent herbed mayonnaise-type sauce. Unfortunately, the side of Napa cabbage slaw was overpowered by fennel and onion and tasted as if it had been refrigerated for several days.

Desserts, made by the pastry chef who runs Mr. Scribner’s ice cream shop next door, are limited. A flourless chocolate cake with a dollop of whipped cream on top and a bit of hot chocolate sauce on the side is excellent, light and chocolaty.

Lime chiffon cake fared less well: a mini bundt cake, tasting much like a packaged yellow cake, is drizzled with a citrusy sugar coating. Not bad, but nothing special. The vanilla ice cream served with the cake, on the other hand, is first-quality, rich and creamy. Panna cotta with a topping of fresh fruit or chocolate chip cookies is the only other dessert.

Dahlia’s wine list is limited and dear — but the restaurant permits patrons to bring their own bottles, charging a corkage fee of $10. Even with the corkage fee, it’s worthwhile to bring something of your own. Wines by the glass, mostly from California, fall in the $9 and $10 range.

Dahlia has a neighborhood following, with lots of lunching ladies and, in the evening, assorted generations. After a rocky start in the spring, Mr. Scribner has found his stride, and what comes out of the kitchen is consistently good. One could only wish for something livelier in the decor. Waiters removing tablecloths and flowers from all unoccupied tables in the evening, with diners in the middle of their meals, is disconcerting. The morrow’s lunch trade could wait. Even with the minimum of ambience, Dahlia’a cooking and prices deserve more respect.

RESTAURANT: Dahlia, 4849 Massachusetts Ave. NW, 202/364-1004

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

PRICES: Appetizers $8 to $9; main courses $16 to $27; pizzas $13; lunch dishes $9 to $16; desserts $7

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Free parking in the mall in front of the restaurant

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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