- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ashok Bajaj continues his winning streak, this time at Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca (Bibiana for short) at 12th and H streets Northwest (although the building insists it’s on New York Avenue).

Mr. Bajaj works the magic to combine the culinary concept, chef and decor to produce restaurants that are true hotties, as he did earlier with contemporary American cuisine at 701 Restaurant and the Oval Room and with modern Indian cooking at Rasika. Now he has done it at downtown Washington’s newest Italian bistro.

Bibiana is fun. The menu is full of delicious, unusual dishes served as either small plates or main courses. The surroundings are trendy, with huge murals of Italian landmarks — the Colosseum and the Leaning Tower of Pisa — in the two dining rooms, with blowups of zoom-zoom Italians on Vespas over the bar.

The chef in charge at Bibiana is Nicholas Stefanelli, who honed his Italian skills with Roberto Donna at Galileo in Washington and Fabio Trabocchi at Maestro in Tysons Corner and at Fiamma in New York City. (Mr. Trabocchi last week was named executive chef of the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York.)

What comes out of Mr. Stefanelli’s kitchen is not only perfectly cooked, but each dish is also composed of the freshest ingredients, simply prepared but invariably interesting and surprising.

Start a meal by sharing some of the piatti piccoli, the small plates, many of them deep-fried, but without a trace of grease: Arancini are small balls of creamy rice with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese encased in a crunchy shell; squash blossoms are hot and airy; baby artichokes are quartered, topped with fried parsley and irresistibly delicious. Little veal meatballs are tasty morsels in sugo finto, a flavorful meatless tomato sauce. Black figs are stuffed with ricotta salata cheese, sprinkled with sliced almonds and complemented with a splash of reduced balsamic vinegar. Exquisite.

An heirloom tomato salad is a plate of bright orange, red and yellow, all ripe and still tasting of summer. Barbabietola is a winning combination of red beets, Gorgonzola cheese and almonds.

The antipasti are a mix of salads, meat, fish and an unusual pizza with an egg in the middle. Tripe, rarely seen on American menus, is braised in tomato sauce with Parmigiano. Vitello tonnato, an Italian classic also seldom seen, consists of tiny rounds of pink veal sirloin with a tuna sauce on the side. The dish is lovely, but the sauce lacks the sparkle of capers and tuna.

Outstanding among the eight pastas are bucatini — thick tubular spaghetti — prepared with red onion, thin-sliced chilies, pecorino cheese and small pieces of guanciale, similar to pancetta. Potato gnocchi have a lovely smoky flavor and virtually melt in your mouth. Cherry tomatoes and bits of basil add color and contrast. Risotto is slightly crunchy, as it should be, and features Taleggio cheese and green apples, a perfect combination.

Main courses are four fish and four meat dishes. The most expensive ($29) is grilled strip loin of beef, served with a large piece of grilled radicchio and a delicious green sauce that tastes of a mix of basil pesto and Argentine chimichurri sauce. The beef has plenty of flavor but was on the tough side.

If beef is not to your taste, try the roasted lamb chop with white beans or the duck breast with grilled peaches and celery root. Sea bass is roasted whole; skate wing is served in brown butter; Louisiana prawns are grilled.

The lunch menu is similar to the dinner menu, at slightly reduced prices, with the addition of a variety of pizzas.

Bibana’s desserts are terrific. Luscious panna cotta is paired with a sauce of peaches and what the menu calls “Tuscan soil”; the “soil” is made of cookie crumbs. Cheesecake is creamy, rich and wonderful.

Bibiana has a good, primarily Italian, wine list with ample choices by the glass. Service is attentive and well-informed. Management cares about the well-being of guests.

What’s next up your sleeve, Mr. Bajaj? Perhaps a Chinese restaurant, or a real New York-style deli with good corned beef and authentic bagels? Washington could use both.

RESTAURANT: Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca, 1100 New York Ave. NW (entrance at 12th and G streets), 202/216-9550.

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Small plates and antipasti $6 to $14; pastas $16 to $21; main courses $22 to $29; desserts $9.

PARKING: Valet dinner parking $8

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible.

METRO: Metro Center.

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