Dino, Cleveland Park

When you hear the term “overrated,” the first thing you should ask yourself is: “Overrated by whom?”

In this 2009 chat, Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema says “I really, really, really want to like Dino as much as its (many) fans do,” followed by “I really appreciate the owner’s obvious passion for what he’s doing, but that passion doesn’t always translate in the eating.” It was not in his 2009 Dining Guide, nor was it in either of his 2010 Dining Guides.

Washingtonian’s Todd Kliman did not include Dino in the January, 2010 issue of the “Top 100 Restaurants,” so according to him, it’s not even a top 100 restaurant in the area.

In June, 2010 Washington City Paper’s Tim Carman (who has since moved to The Washington Post) wrote this review about Dino, citing owner Dean Gold’s “unimpeachable” commitment to regional Italian cooking and ingredients, and lauds the “deep and daunting Italian wine list.” But if you read this piece carefully, he doesn’t say anything good about the actual cooked food that is served.

So who overrates this place?

Well, maybe it’s me – because I’ve had it consistently rated as one of the top four restaurants in Cleveland Park in my Dining Guide (available only to participating donrockwell.com members). But like Carman, I like the restaurant primarily for three things: ingredients, beverage program, and the owner’s genuine passion for regional Italian cuisine. No, make that four things: one, or both, of the owners is often at the restaurant, and that’s a lot more than you can say for many other places.

But does that mean the cooking is any good?

I have been to Dino at least two dozen times over the years. In November, 2010, I had a full meal there, and left immensely unimpressed by what I had, including the much ballyhooed Tuscan Bánh Mì ($5) that is lauded, for example, right here.

Ah, yes, that little website known as donrockwell.com, where Dean Gold has been an active participant for five and a half of the longest years of my life, where Dino – inexplicably – is one of two restaurants in the entire DC area that has over 200,000 views (congratulations, by the way!)

Inexplicably? Well … maybe not.

Because, you see, it’s also listed as the #2 Best Restaurant in the DC metropolitan area (behind Komi, and ahead of CityZen, Citronelle, Oval Room, Palena, and Restaurant Eve) in the moronic Washingtonian Readers’ Poll. In the same issue, Dino is also listed as the #1 Italian Restaurant, the #1 Best Value Restaurant, and the #3 Wine Bar.

So maybe it’s the same people who have given Dino 200,000+ views on donrockwell.com who also love it so much on Washingtonian. A couple possibilities: perhaps there are an awful lot of non-professional restaurant critics who are fans, or perhaps a single, irrational person is spending a lot of time hitting the reload button on both websites; it sure as hell isn’t me.

I stopped into Dino last night to get a second bite at that Tuscan Bánh Mì before making any comment. The cordial Andrew Shapiro was tending bar, and I asked him to make me his best drink.

“Sweet or not sweet?” he replied.

“Not sweet.”

And he went on to make me a dazzling Manhattan, the Il Consigliere (Sicilian Perfect Manhattan) ($11), a wonderful mix of Johnny Drum Bourbon, Amaro Averna, Cocchi Americano, bitters, and “boozy bourbon cherries.”

It bears mention that Dino’s bar always features dishes of little nibbles – really good olives, for example – and these giveaways would normally cost several dollars at just about any other restaurant. It is one of the friendliest, most welcoming gestures featured at any bar in town (making it an ironic pity that the bar is so small).

I’m sorry, but, for the second consecutive time, the Tuscan Bánh Mì was not good. Served as two ample crostini, the ciabatta bread is topped with a wonderful chopped duck liver (note to Dean Gold: STOP HERE!), an icebox-cold, too-thick house wild boar paté that dominated the dish, wild boar prosciutto (good), house pickles (also good), Sriracha, and anchovy aioli. While some of the individual components are fine, the thing as a whole is a train wreck (note the allegory).

While I was curious about this (I no longer am), I really had no desire to trash this independently owned restaurant, so I asked Andrew what he thought was the best small plate in the house (yes, so I could write something glowing). And when he immediately said “the artichokes,” I nodded my head, because I’ve had them before and loved them.

Carciofi Fritti ($12) is extremely expensive for a bowl of fried Santa Monica farmers’ market baby ‘chokes, black lava salt, and lemon wedge, but this dish was just as good last night as it was before. It’s done in really good, clean oil (the napkins stink, btw), and the only thing that could have possibly improved it was a milling of salt (Dino has great salt) which really brought it to life. Get this, and use it as your guide for ordering at this ingredient-driven restaurant, i.e., keep things as simple as possible.

If this post sounds like a psychotic, mixed bag, that’s because it is. And so is Dino, a restaurant that would serve us all well to sit down, shut up, and spare us all the unwanted self-promotion and hype.

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