Tragara, Bethesda, MD

Fine dining is not dead.

I’d walked past Tragara so many times in recent years that I’d convinced myself I’d been there, long ago. But when I actually went in, I realized that I’d never been in my life.

Immediately, you get the feeling of old-school, formal Italian, and when you step past the entry way into the large dining room, that feeling is only confirmed.

The gentleman meeting you at the host stand is Claude Amsellem, the owner, who opened Tragara in 1994. The chef – actually working in the kitchen – is Michel Laudier, the former chef at Rive Gauche in Georgetown.

Even before you’re seated, you notice that things are different here: you’re escorted across a carpeted floor, with plenty of space between the tables, which have tablecloths and linens (with no odor) on them, and there is a hushed murmur throughout the room rather than an abrasive shouting match going on. How odd that this has become a novelty instead of the norm.

This would all be for naught if the service was fake, as it has the potential to be in a dressy restaurant like this: servers who smile to your face, but roll their eyes when they turn to walk away, only to disappear for ten minutes and return smelling like cigarette smoke. None of that is here – the overall impression I got is that Tragara is one of the rare restaurants in the DC area with a very professional, highly trained front of the house, whose job it is to make sure you enjoy your meal. What a novel concept, right?

And again, all this would be for naught if the food was bad, and in a restaurant such as this – formal, old-school Italian – quite honestly, that would be pretty much par for the course.

I ordered a glass of “house” Pinot Grigio ($9.50) which was brought on a tray (again, how novel).  The initial finish led me to believe they’d mistakenly poured me a Chardonnay, but after a few minutes, the buttery component blew off, and the wine became one that I’d gladly drink at home. And it was a good pairing with the Portobello Monte Bianco ($9.95), a marinated and grilled portobello, baked and served in a clay bowl with tomato and homemade mozzarella, the sauce gladly swabbed up with Tragara’s house-baked bread. This was a hearty, fairly large appetizer that is a repeat, and boded well for the main course.

I was impressed enough with the house Pinot Grigio to go with a glass of house Chianti ($9.50), and paired it with the most expensive item on Tragara’s menu: Veal Chop Marsala ($39.95), a sauteed, center-cut veal chop, with a Marsala reduction, shiitakes, and an incredible polenta cake that was the perfect sponge for both the fully reduced sauce and the drippings from the veal chop. This was a full-bore, head-on, “go ahead and show me what your expensive, old-school cooking can do” challenge to the restaurant, and they rose to the occasion. The chop maybe could have been a touch larger for the price, but that is about the only thing that fell short of a best-case scenario.

Tragara is proud of its homemade Ice Cream and Sorbet ($8.95), and rightfully so – there were about a dozen to choose from, and they rank right up there with the best ice creams you’ll find in the DC area. You can choose five, and I selected gianduja, vanilla rum, banana-poppy seed, rose hibiscus, and the one that everyone must, must order: prune and grappa (even if you don’t think you’ll like this, order it anyway).

I’m not quite sure why Tragara is never discussed. Maybe it’s because the food isn’t cutting-edge, or foamy, or squiggly, but I’ll take solid execution over novelty any day of the week. The wine list is also surprisingly competent, with plenty of decent bottles priced in the $30s.

As I dined, I watched a young woman at a table alone – she had been there for about twenty minutes drinking a couple of soft drinks, and waiting for someone who never arrived. I saw her check her text messages, and then she got up and asked one of the employees: “Where is Faryab?” She was in the wrong place, and needed to leave. She asked for the check, and the gracious host, Claude Amsellem, declined to give her one.

A little while later, I noticed a table of senior citizens assembling. An elderly, disabled man came hobbling into the restaurant, needing assistance to get to the table. Mr. Amsellem approached him near the host stand, extended his hand, and warmly said to the man who was clearly a regular guest here, “How are you doing?”

Tragara is fine dining, but also a very good neighborhood restaurant for wealthy senior citizens. I’m initiating coverage in italic in the Dining Guide, available to members only.

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