Close to Perfect
This quiet little Foggy Bottom trattoria has received a lot of mixed reviews, particularly after it lost its first executive chef c. 2008 and thus its place on several local "best of" lists. For our pre-Kennedy Center dinner last night, we settled on Notti Bianchi based on literally hundreds of reviews from other sources that, if they faulted anything, faulted the service. Canny restaurateurs read their reviews and respond accordingly, so we presumed we'd have at least tasty meal of fresh ingredients with at least adequate service (which would beat anything we might get at the Kennedy Center itself...as in "a dry sandwich and a bottle of Dasani filtered tap water). Not a very high bar for Executive Chef Robert DeCoste and his kitchen to top, right? Well, in our judgment - and this is a data point of 2 - our expectations were wildly exceeded.
The room itself is located on the ground floor of the George Washington University Inn, a clean, pleasant establishment where you can get a room for under $100.00 in a the pleasant "Historic Foggy Bottom" neighborhood, literally five minutes on foot from the Kennedy Center, 10-15 minutes from the State Dept. and the western edge of the mall - a nice location. We strolled around before our reservation and admired the mid-19th C. bracketed Italianate residential architecture.
"Spare" and "understated" is how I'd describe the room, with faux stucco walls replicating a look you'll see a lot of in Rome or Naples. Nice. We were there very early - the DC area had just been bombed with three feet of snow and we had no idea the roads would be as clear as they were - and settled in to the back bar, where Notti Bianche connects to the Inn, for a drink. I had my standard - an old-school dry Beefeaters martini - and my wife had a house concoction, a "Bellissimo" (cute, huh?), consisting of equal parts of citron, limoncello, and topped off (in a martiini glass) with prosecco. My wife sighed and pronounced the drink "sublime." My martini stayed on ice a little too long, its bite diminished, but it was tasty, generously portioned, the "splash" of vermouth indeed just a splash, and did its work.
Inside, we had a pleasant, well-informed server who offered up her favorites only after we had ordered one or specifically asked her which items on the menu she enjoyed most - a risky strategy, I know, for a myriad of reasons, but it was an empty room, we were in no hurry, and why not kibitz a bit? From the small-plates selections (I suppose Notti Bianche has joined the small-food tapas craze and has a few items - olives, anchovies - here) we settled on a shared caponata, an eggplant-tomato-olive preparation that, if spread on bread and grilled, would have made dandy bruschetta. A good start, if not one that caused our eyes to roll back in our heads.
We picked salads that did in fact cause our eyes to roll a bit: I had the arugula Caesar, which comes out with a sizable sea-faring white anchovy on an oily crouton on the side. The greens were piled high and crunchy, the dressing neither over- nor under-applied, and, although I could have crushed the anchovy side and tossed it into the salad, I snapped it up in two bites - delicately delicious. My wife had the mixed fresh greens with goat cheese - similarly fresh, simply dressed with oil and vinegar, and delicious. Both salads were ample - you could split one, expecially if you were expecting to finish with deserts.
And a note on the table olio - frankly, a lot of Italian joints presume their patrons know nothing about olive oil and will put literally lamp oil, lampante, on the table. And indeed, many Italian oil bottlers are big cheats, who label their oil "extra virgin" but put lampante in the bottle for unsuspecting foreigners, who slurp it up and wonder why it tastes like crankcase oil. The oil Notti Bianche puts on the table would honor a Roman trattoria and demonstrates a respect for the cuisine that I thought noteworthy. The bread was good - solid Italian loaves cut into inch-wide slices and served in a conical napkin holder. I like a crustier, more rustic bread and push away second rate supermarket breads, but this was perfectly fine. And given our app and my entree, I asked for a second serving, which we seldom do unless we're a big party.
On the eye-roll meter, one of our main courses produced a "10" - "wholly whites, disappearing deeply into the recesses of the skull, shudders of delight optional." This was my wife's filled-pasta dish (I want to say "large Tardelli" but I just don't know - bigger than a ravioli, smaller than manicotti shell, tubular and closed at both ends, probably a house contrivance) with pumpkin and butternut squash filling, brown butter sauce, and an unadvertised but easily detectable surprise splash a truffle oil. Absolutely brilliant - the truffle oil a bare suggestion, the butter sauce topped with roasted crushed hazlenut (an Italian standby, not our favorite nut, but here it simply adds texture and, again, a subtle shading of flavor complexity), all of which mingled with the savory fillings in perfect harmony. We were reeling in ecstasies.
We both chose items off the day's specials. I had a cioppino, kind of an Italian bouillabaisse of catch-of-the-day fare, whatever's fresh: here, mussels, shrimp, and crab croquets (a surprise - no calamari) sitting in a tomato-and-garlic broth. It was fresh, well prepared, extremely ample, and the broth thickly delicious - indeed, much more substantial than customary (I finished it all with the bread). Very stick-to-your ribs on a cold, snowy day, extremely satisfying - what you'd hope for a well-prepared cioppino.
But the pasta... Notti Bianche seems quite the place for pasta dishes. The good reports seem absolutely spot on.
We finished with a shared mascarpone-based desert, a scoop of almond-and-vanilla infused mascarpone cream that was essentially Italian cheesecake without crust, very nice if you're on the Atkins and delicious in any event. My wife thought the pineapple compote on the side was a bit much - I frankly like sticky, sickly sweet in small quantities and thought it quite the thing. The coffee was a decent bean: well prepared, sufficiently strong French Roast from a press.
The wine list is short, generally well selected, and will do quite nicely. We ordered by the glass - we were going to two and a half hours of ballet, and after my martini, a half bottle of wine would have knocked me out - and the Notti Bianche's by-the-glass wine service will give you a taste before the full pour, a nice touch that a few other local joints are now including. I had an Umbrian wine that I later regretted accepting (my bad - a trebbiano, the weed of Tuscany, but in Umbria... I should have asked for something else but was being insufficiently finicky), my wife a New Zealand sauvignon blanc that was very nice indeed.
Service: generally good, unobtrusive, knowledgeable, not quite hyper-efficient in an empty room. I would like to have had salt and pepper on the table to season my olio. I know: I might have asked (but my wife hates when I salt anything, so I decided to skip the lecture and enjoy the delicious oil sans seasoning.) We were offered fresh pepper with the salads but not the entrees (a kind of "Big Night" touch - is this the presumption of a kitchen that believes its preparations are perfect when they come off the line?). We might have been offered grated cheese for our entrees as well, even if the chef might have cringed at the thought. My cioppino needed a shell bowl (I used the bread dish), a finger wipe, and a soup spoon. None of these appeared or were even offered (although again, benefit of the doubt, old-school mussels service allows for using a mussel shell as a spoon).
Price point: moderate. Small dishes and apps, $5-10. Salads, $7-10. Entrees: $15-30 (at the top end are costly cuts of meat, steak and veal chops, rack of lamb - the menu is short and variable). The out-of-sight pasta dish was $16. My cioppino was $26. I thought both were bargains. Wines: by the glass $8-12, those bottles were $30-40 and mostly good choices at those prices.
So, except for a few small glitches, nearly perfect: if I could, four-and-a-half stars. We were both in such a glow (it was probably the good cup of coffee - how many fabulous meals are ruined by finishing with a liquid brewing science would scarcely recognize as "coffee") I rounded up to nearly 30 percent. We'll be returning later this month before another KC event. And if Notti Bianche does as well on our second visit, we'll make it our default pre-KC choice. I'll report back (at much briefer length) on the second trial.
824 New Hampshire Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20037