On a very slow, cold, rainy night on a Columbus Day Sunday, RafaginoÂ was fairly empty with only a few tables taken, but the suave owner,Â Paulo Carvalho, greeted the trickling of patrons by the door, just as he has done for 18 years.
In a downscale strip mall, Rafagino is a downscale version of fine dining, with service that is more European than American. Silverware is cleared after each course (DC restaurants, please take note), wine and water are attentively refilled, and no customer is left feeling neglected or unwanted. You are not “eating” here; you are dining.
Aside from the service, the wine list is probably the restaurant’s biggest strength, with many palatable wines priced in the $20s and $30s. A 2010 Placido Chianti ($29, and erroneously listed on the menu as a Chianti Classico) was everything you’d want with this meal – understated, with mild, ripe (but not overripe) red cherry marching in lockstep with its supporting acidity – a fine, food-oriented Chianti that can be taken home if you don’t finish the bottle.
I wish I could go on with my praise, but I must stop here. The bread in the basket was industrial, day-old, slices of baguette-like substance that was what you’d find on a bad day at Shoppers’ Food Warehouse, served with foil-wrapped pats of real butter and a decent olive oil. I didn’t try the Lemonade ($2), but believe my young dining companion when he said it tasted bitter and unappealing (if I were Rafagino, I’d consider offering the San Pellegrino Limonata which is now becoming more-and-more widely distributed, now even available for home delivery by Deer Park).
Carpaccio di Tonno ($10.95) was a plateful of flattened tuna, looking like a prosciutto, sprinkled with capers, a central thimble of what might have been crushed anchovies, and capers. It was on the dry side (meaning that the tuna wasn’t at all glistening), but it was pleasant enough.
Gamberoni Avolti in Pancetta e Scamozza ($10.95) were four shrimp, baked and served in their own clay pot (DC restaurants, please take note), wrapped in pancetta and smoked mozzarella, topped with a drizzle of balsamic. At $2.25 per shrimp, this was an expensive dish, but I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it having been served in its own baking vessel. “The cooking times for shrimp and pancetta are different,” my astute dining companion remarked, “and there’s no way the doneness of this dish is going to be perfect.” The drips of balsamic added a tinge of sweetness in the millimeter of broth that had formed in the bottom of the clay vessel, and better bread would have gone a long way toward saving this dish.
A daily special of Rigatoni con Bolognese di Cinghiale ($16.95) was a plain, white bowl of dried rigatoni, not cooked to death, bottomed with an enjoyable sauce with wild boar that could have doubled as ground beef. The price seems reasonable, but this needs to be a sauce dish, and it needed twice the amount of sauce to have been successful; as it was served, it was tolerable, but stingy in the only place where it really mattered.
Cotoletta di Agnello con Carciofi al Rosmarino ($25.95) was the one big loser of the evening, the two small T-bones of lamb being so tough (uncuttable with anything not serrated), bland, and soulless that I would have difficulty discerning this was lamb had I not known. It appeared at once frozen, braised, and reheated, and was rescued by the occasional artichoke and its accompanying side of linguini in oil. The Grated Parmesan service tasted powdered to me, and added nothing to either the linguini or the rigatoni.
Rafagino brings out mostly purchased desserts on a tray in a fairly elaborate presentation – about a dozen in total. A tulip of Vanilla Ice Cream with Caramel and Walnuts ($8) was cold, store-bought ice cream with corn-syrupy caramel and … wait a minute … the umami of the walnuts magically bringing my last glass of Chianti back to life and over the top. Yep! The best wine pairing of the night was with the walnut aspect of this dessert. Surprise!
Rafagino has a wine list worth knowing about if you’re out for a civilized dinner, and service that can match most any restaurant in the Virginia suburbs despite it’s strip-mall roots. The mostly older (50s, 60s) patrons genuinely appreciated Â Mr. Carvalho’s deft hand running the front of the house, and were all happy. Good service costs money, and it’s worth it, too, because I’ll remember this aspect of Rafagino long before I forget the leathery lamb chop.
But this dinner for two, all-in, was a painful $130. At this price, the food simply must be better – a lot better – and there’s no amount of service that can dance around that simple reality.