It had been too long since my young dining companion and I went off on one of our adventures in DC, so I wanted to go somewhere neither of us had been before. Bar Civita just got something of a scathing First Bite, but I wanted to form my own opinion.
On the Sunday before Memorial Day, I’d called to see if there would be a problem getting a table at 6:15, and they said no, just come on in – Woodley Park was, not surprisingly, packed with tourists, the Gin Joint at New Heights was open, and Open City appears to be continuing its tendency to print money, it’s patio being completely full with patrons from the Omni Shoreham and the Marriott Wardman Park hotels. The Wardman Park, in particular, will play a vital role in Bar Civita’s ultimate success, the question being: will this restaurant play to the tourists, or will LaCivita join New Heights in upping the ante?
We were seated by the hostess and given menus, and then a runner came and filled our water glasses, but nobody had yet taken a drink order. Finally, our server came by and took our entire order, and with my order, I asked for a cocktail, a Hemingway Daiquiri ($11) which didn’t arrive until after our first appetizer. Unfortunately, this was symptomatic of the service problems we would be experiencing during the entire meal, the one saving grace being that our server was clearly a nice person (who had the easily correctable habit of saying, “No problem!” every single time either of us said thank you – perhaps a dozen times through the course of the meal) The entire staff needs to be trained, and Bar Civita should consider this an almost-urgent priority.
A somewhat clumsy plate of bread arrived, four pieces in total, with a small tub of butter – the plate itself was just too big, and life would be simpler for everyone if this humble accoutrement came in a small basket – when our house-made Lamb Rillettes ($4) landed, it came with its own small plate of toasted bread, and we needed to consolidate our plates, eliminating the bread plate entirely. The rillettes was served at refrigerator temperature, which compromised an otherwise-clever riff on the classic British dish, “Roasted Leg of Lamb with Mint Jelly,” as the “layer of fat” on top was indeed house-made mint jelly, and was quite good. At the right temperature, this dish is a keeper; our server was unable to tell us which of the other various charcuterie offered were house-made, and which were procured, so we just stuck with the rillettes. At $4, especially with the presentation on a wooden board with house-pickled vegetables, mustard, and sea salt, this is a bargain; the restaurant is undoubtedly hoping that customers will order multiple types of charcuterie.
For appetizers, we each got a half-portion of pasta: Gnocchi ($8) with Abruzzese sausage in the form of small meatballs, tomato, Sambuca, mozzarella, and large, green olives, possibly Castelvetrano; and Pincianelle ($9) with leg of lamb and neck ragu, a large dab of goat ricotta sitting in the middle of the bowl, fava beans, mint, and chiles. As diametrically different as these two pastas may sound, they were, amazingly, almost indistinguishable from one another – the somewhat sweet, bland tomato sauce was the dominating factor in both dishes.
A half-portion of the NY Strip ($12) was a good value for several cubes of properly cooked, medium-rare steak, served with smoked potato and truffled cheese puree (not hot enough), grilled asparagus, and red wine tamarind jus. A full order of Roasted Chicken Contadina ($21) comes with a warning that it will take 35 minutes (okay with me), and is listed as being served with confit and crisped breast, preserved lemon, sweet and hot cherry peppers, mushrooms, Roman style gnocchi, and chicken jus. This was accompanied by a glass of good Sauvignon Blanc ($10.50), served in quality stemware at the proper temperature – I had a choice of New Zealand or French wines, and chose the French: I never did ask about the producer, but it might have been a Patient Cottat “Le Grand Caillou.” There were substitutions on this evening, as the breast was served atop a cylinder of polenta, and there were three roasted shishito peppers encircling the plate. This has the potential to be a very good dish, but this was the driest roast chicken I can remember having at a restaurant in a long time, and the somewhat flavorless steak wasn’t far behind.
I see in Bar Civita a casual restaurant with potential, and I’ve seen the chef’s work at both Centro and Liberty Tavern, so I know he’s capable of running a good kitchen; for now, this must be considered a work in progress, to be monitored for its potential: despite all of the intricate details listed on the menu, the entire restaurant needs to step backward, take a deep breath, and look at the big picture, both in terms of service, and also in terms of basic flavor and textural profiles in its cuisine.