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Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar
2917 M Street NW
Washington, DC
(202) 333-2912

Restaurant Now Closed
www.mendocinodc.com

My wife and I first dined at Mendocino two years ago on a rather chilly evening, the penultimate day of February. Ever since that first culinary encounter, we have been anxious to pay a return visit. And the reason is quite simple: Mendocino's contemporary American cuisine with subtle California subtitles is always worthy of a return engagement.

But, like most restaurants, there is more here than meets the eye or, in this case, the palate. One of the things I like about Mendocino is that, even though it sits on Georgetown's bustling main drag, its presence isn't conspicuously apparent. There is no exterior signpost, just the discreet lettering on the entranceway. In other words, you kind of have to go hunting for it... which helps keep the hordes of grab 'n' growl tourists at a minimum. A definite plus in my book. If this labels me an insufferable snob, so be it.

There is no question that the restaurant offers a casually civilized scene where equally civilized adults - aka "yuppies" - come to dine and to sip & savor the oenological treasures offered at the diminutive sophisticated wine bar. The catalog of vintages features over 200 California, Washington, and Oregon wines, including 20-plus wines by the glass (or half glass).

When you finally settle in at table, the brief sentence from the restaurant's website surely sets the tone: "With its singular focus on naturally-raised meats, seafood and seasonal produce, Mendocino's mission reveals the depth and breadth of the Mid-Atlantic's best ingredients." Indeed, the cuisine here, in the capable hands of executive chef Samuel Whitcomb and sous chef Giuseppe Desilvio, is fresh and vibrant; the combination of ingredients innovative; the presentations contemporary without being convoluted.

To start things off, the Cherry Glen Chèvre gnocchi beguiles the palate with its ethereal texture and accompaniments of lemon thyme, royal trumpet mushrooms, and chive blossoms; the crispy pork terrine reclines on a pillow of frisée, is companioned by a quail egg, and finished with a zesty salsa verde; and the grilled local asparagus is lovingly embraced by prosciutto and spruced up with black pepper, lemon zest, and Olio Nuvo extra virgin olive oil.

For my money, however, the standout among the preludes is the house-made pâté plate, a feast for the eye as well as the palate. Artistically displayed on a cheeseboard you find a dollop of sensuously silky brandied chicken liver, triangle of country-style pork, grilled bread, cornichons, assorted mustards, and tangle of pickled enoki mushrooms. An incomparably beautiful and delectable presentation..

Even salads, which generally receive minimum attention in lesser establishments, are here totally commensurate with the establishment's other fine offerings. The Mendocino salad, for example, is comprised of pristinely fresh mixed greens and delicate vegetables shavings. The finishing touch is a superb sherry vinaigrette. I am, however, quite partial to the baby arugula, which is teamed with breakfast radishes, marinated red onion, pistachios, and a subtle but exceedingly seductive black pepper crème fraîche.

Entrées are generally equally divided between meat, fish, vegetarian items, and an occasional fowl. In point of fact, during our previous dining experience, the latter part of February 2008, I thoroughly enjoyed the kitchen's first-class presentation of Muscovy duck breast. Sumptuously thick slices were set atop a pillow of tangy red cabbage and were aided and abetted by a celeriac fondant, foie gras torchon, and an utterly addictive duck jus.

Since our most recent visit occurred near the end of May, and the weather was delightfully warm, Mendocino's menu, as expected, had lighted up for the coming of spring. And my wife was immediately attracted to the wild Alaskan halibut. And the filet was prepared precisely as it should have been: gently pan roasted to a golden brown yet snowy white (not at all translucent) at the core. It was then set on a seabed of braised fennel, companioned by a number of plump, succulent mussels, scattering of chickpeas, and sent swimming to table in a delightful shellfish brodetto (broth) embellished with fresh herbs. An absolute delight.

I was sorely tempted by the heirloom beet risotto, which sported both Detroit & Chioggia beets (the former globe shaped and dark red; the latter alternating shades of pink and white, turning all pink when cooked), young mild gorgonzola cheese, and smattering of fresh tarragon. .

... But I opted instead for another vegetarian dish, the perciatelli artisinale, long strands of pasta, slightly fatter than spaghetti, with a hollow center running lengthwise through the middle. This particular pasta was festooned with pea shoots & lemon balm (lemon-flavored leaves), surrounded by an armada of wafer thin slices of pink globe radishes, and topped with a tiara of luscious local asparagus and shavings of pecorino cheese. A treat for vegetarian and non-vegetarian alike. Sufficient, I should think, to convert even the most dedicated carnivore.

As I mentioned at the outset, this is a restaurant for lovers of the fruit of the vine. And the wine list offered numerous possibilities to pair with our halibut and the pasta. I chose the 2007 Domaine Drouhin "Arthur" Dundee Hills Chardonnay.

Domaine Drouhin, the sister winery of Burgundy's famous Maison Joseph Drouhin, has more than earned its reputation as a producer of exceptional wines in Oregon. This particular wine is fermented half in stainless steel and half in French oak barrels, only 10% of which are new. Hence, it is elegantly and refreshingly under-oaked, exhibiting just the proper hint of acidity and minerality. At $60.00 a bottle, I'm sure that some would consider it too expensive... but, in my opinion, it was worth the price of admission... Now if only I could lay my hands on a few bottles here in Pennsylvania.

Desserts continue the kitchen's excellent work... And the star of the show is the lemoncello semifreddo, an attractive - and utterly addictive - combo of frozen lemon custard and lemoncello macerated cake.

But Mendocino also boasts an excellent selection of cheeses, a most rewarding denouement to your evening at table. You may choose two cheeses for $9.00, four for $18.00, or six for $27.00; accoutrements ($3.00) include spiced nuts, sangiovese jelly, sauvignon blanc jelly, or olives. A full cheese board with the aforementioned accents is available at $46.00.

With its innovative, attractively presented cuisine, knowledgeable service, exceptional wine list, and casual California ambiance, Mendocino is a winner in every respect. I recommend it highly.

The Artful Diner
May 2010

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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