Power Lunch: Into the Woods at Cedar

Posted September 8, 2009 at 4:35pm

Cedar, the new woodland-inspired restaurant in Penn Quarter, seems to have found a sweet spot in a tough economy. Lunch there feels more luxurious than one might expect when paying the tab, with details you might see at places where the prices are easily double.

[IMGCAP(1)]Visitors reach the dining room by descending a metal staircase, where murals of forests lining the walls and large fabric panels covering the ceiling are an effort to make the place say “cozy,— not “basement— — the restaurant’s subterranean location is windowless. There’s also plenty of the eatery’s namesake wood to be found, including along the handsome bar.

The chef behind the menu is Andrew Kitko, a recent veteran of famed chef Daniel Boulud’s Cafe Boulud in New York. Fortunately, Kitko’s take on Cedar’s outdoorsy vibe is more refined cuisine than rustic hunter-gatherer fare. His classical French training, Italian heritage and stints on the West Coast lend eclectic influences to the menu.

Some of the standouts can be found on the appetizer list, including a creamy corn soup that’s like dinner theater: It’s served as a mound of crab sitting at the bottom of a soup bowl, into which a waiter pours the soup with a flourish. The sweetness of the corn is cut by the tang of crème fraîche and the grassy notes of finely minced fresh herbs. My lunch companion was practically licking the bowl.

Another of the best appetizers stars plump scallops, their edges seared and crisp but their centers perfectly tender, lined up along a stripe of earthy potato puree. The salsa verde that accompanies it isn’t the Mexican version with tomatillo, but rather an Italian-accented sauce of parsley and briny pickled cucumber.

Staying in the Mediterranean region, the rockfish entree is a slab of juicy meat and crispy skin, paired with a ratatouille-like red pepper and eggplant “marmalade— that conjures the south of France.

[IMGCAP(2)]The biggest disappointment was the menu item I was most excited about: the BLT sandwich. As a devotee of the humble combination (my gold standard is the simple version served in the Senate-basement takeout), I was intrigued by the description of Cedar’s upscale version. House-made pork belly in place of traditional bacon and garlicky aioli were plenty succulent, but they were overwhelmed by the club-style layers of bread. The bland smoked-tomato compote made me wonder why, at the height of tomato season, a simple beefy slice wouldn’t do.

Still, even an entree that falls flat can be redeemed by Cedar’s decadently restrained desserts. If diners sense love in their preparation, that could be because Kitko’s wife, Anny Wohn, is the pastry chef. The two met in a San Francisco restaurant kitchen, and their collaboration is just as successful in a professional setting as it proved to be outside the restaurant.

A moist tres leches cake is given a nice crunch with a crown of toasted coconut and is brightened by a pool of lime-spiked avocado sauce and a dollop of mango sorbet. The tropical notes play well together, and the effect is of intense flavor rather than cloying sugar.

Wohn also successfully marries savory and sweet in the carrot cake, a confection that’s at once dense and light, with layers of cake and creamy cream cheese frosting topped by a curly tangle of earthy dried carrot.

It’s not just what’s on the plates, though, that seems thoughtful at Cedar. Linen tablecloths and waiters who scrape crumbs from your table in between courses are more than one might expect during a meal with a tab hovering around 20 bucks. Coffee is served in individual café-press pots, while the bread and butter comes with tiny pots of crunchy rock salt. And service is attentive and brisk without making diners feel rushed, a difficult balance to achieve particularly during lunch.

Perhaps that’s why — or maybe it was simply that it was August in Washington, when long lunches are de rigueur — that diners seemed to be lingering, ordering bottles of wine and cappuccinos instead of hustling back to the office.

There’s even more reason for cubicle-dwellers to return once they’re off the clock. The bar is developing a following among the city’s cocktail-mad crowd. Ask for the No. 9 on the drink menu, and you’re treated to a custom creation based on the bartender’s whims.

Even though Cedar (822 E St. NW) is supposed to evoke a walk in the woods, it’s hard to get more civilized than a freshly mixed drink or a satisfying lunch.