- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The lovable Colorado Kitchen is not a place you stumble upon. It’s smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Brightwood, of all places.

“I think we’re pretty much the only restaurant here,” says Robin Smith, Colorado’s manager. “We draw from places like Bethesda … but you have to know that we’re here.”

Ms. Smith says most people discover the six-year-old restaurant — small, 48 seats — and its American home cooking through word of mouth, a review or maybe a bit from the Food Network, where the restaurant has been featured several times.

Behind the not-very-flattering brightly-lit sign and storefront, customers find a quaint dining room. Old, red bandannas double as napkins; salt and pepper shakers are in the shape of baked potatoes or ears of corn; framed old-timey ads promote pancake mixes and Campbell’s products; red and chrome chairs and tables stand upon black-and-white tiled floors.

More importantly, though, Colorado Kitchen serves some of the most well-prepared and best-conceptualized takes on well-known American favorites such as slaw, split-pea soup, roasted chicken and meatloaf — Ms. Smith wants to make sure people don’t think it’s Southern or soul food.

It’s not fancy, and when chef Gillian Clark describes it as “Betty Crocker gone to Cordon Bleu,” we can relate, except Ms. Clark’s dishes arrive without frills. There are no garnishes or sauces splashed, dropped or swirled. The green split-pea soup (a special of the day), arrived in a small, white bowl without that ubiquitous swirl of sour cream in the middle or any garnish on the side.

In the end, though, who cares that it isn’t the most aesthetic when the palate gets an exceptional treat? In the case of the split-pea soup, it’s smooth and rich, an excellent choice.

With the appetizers and drinks, which arrived quickly, small home-made biscuits are served. These are no ordinary biscuits. They are the kind that succeed in being light, moist and rich at the same time. They could be the best biscuits in town.

Another nice starter is the winter slaw with roasted garlic dressing and goat cheese fritters. The lightly dressed slaw is fresh and combines perfectly with the fatty and flavorful fritters. Who knew slaw and goat cheese meshed so well?

We also tried the braised rabbit with turnip puffs and greens. The rabbit was just perfect. Nicely seasoned and fall-off-the-bone tender. The fried turnip puffs and fresh assorted salad greens balanced out the dish nicely. It’s too small to double as an entree, though.

The restaurant received its wine and beer license a few years ago and now carries a limited but adequate selection, including the excellent Belgian beer Chimay. Colorado Kitchen also offers a variety of sodas and soda drinks, such as black and tan (chocolate ice cream with creme soda) and Dorothy’s Ruby Slipper (vanilla ice cream with strawberry soda).

Yes, this place does have a sense of humor. On the menu, for example, it tells customers to keep an eye on their children. If they can’t, please don’t hesitate to ask for help, says the menu and adds, “We keep leg irons in the basement.”

It’s not all fun and games at Colorado, though. Some customers complain of rude staff and long waits. It’s true that for weekend brunch, lines and waits can be quite long. Friday and Saturday nights, too, are very busy. On top of that, the restaurant does not accept reservations and doesn’t do take-out.

For the record, on a recent Wednesday night, it was all smooth sailing. The service was attentive and knowledgeable and dishes arrived quickly.

There are still people (about 160 on a recent Sunday morning to be precise), though, who brave the long waits in freezing weather just to get their hands on — or maybe it should be teeth into — such brunch favorites as shrimp and grits, fried catfish or eggs Benedict.

Among dinner entree favorites is the meatloaf with apple chestnut dressing and onion gravy. It’s one of those a-ha experiences in which you think of all the past meatloaves you’ve had and realize you have just experienced the meatloaf of your life. It’s perfection. The onion gravy is thick and flavorful and complements the meat perfectly. The apple chestnut dressing is a nice touch, but we still had to order an extra side of mashed potatoes, which were even better than grandma’s.

Another wise choice is the pork chop with vegetable cobbler and garlic-thyme reduction. Somehow, Ms. Clark succeeds in making the usually dry chop somewhat juicy and very nicely seasoned. The vegetable cobbler and garlic-thyme reduction fit well with the chop and help make this dish filling and balanced.

The only thing missing in these dishes is visual interest — a splash of color or shape or texture. The dishes tend to be a brown glob of deliciousness, which is a lot better than pretty and bland. We still would like to jazz up the look a little.

The menu is relatively short, with between six and eight dishes per appetizer-entree-dessert category. Ms. Clark changes the menu often, though, excepting the meatloaf and roasted chicken, which customers love so much she can’t touch them.

The dessert list radiates home cooking-diner fare just like the rest of the menu. There’s the apple pandowdy, pineapple upside-down cake, and marble pound cake sundae.

All desserts are made in-house except for the ice cream, which is local but not made by Ms. Clark. We tried the apple pandowdy with cinnamon ice cream. It’s all apple, butter, molasses and pie-crust goodness. On top of that, the portion is quite generous.

We also tried the blue ribbon gingerbread with pear puree. It was nice and not very sweet, but couldn’t touch the pandowdy.

We wish we could move the Colorado Kitchen near our home, because all neighborhoods should have a corner diner of this caliber. The food is simple and classic yet innovative; the service is swift and attentive and the decor is retro and fun.

RESTAURANT: Colorado Kitchen, 5515 Colorado Ave. NW; 202/545-8280

HOURS: dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and until 9 p.m. Sunday; Friday lunch, 11:30 to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

PRICES: First course $5.50 to $13.50, main course $15.95 to $25.50, dessert $5.50 to $6.75. Children’s portions, $5.95; brunch items from $2.50 for a half-dozen small doughnuts

CREDIT CARDS: Major cards accepted

PARKING: Limited street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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