The Hot Plate: Now, That’s Italian

Posted December 16, 2009 at 4:25pm

When I first heard that restaurateur Ashok Bajaj was planning on opening another Italian restaurant in D.C., I was skeptical. Again and again Italian places have opened in this city offering little more than mushy pasta and sauce that tastes as if it came from a jar. Luckily for all of us, Bajaj has steered clear of this trap. His new restaurant — Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca (1100 New York Ave. NW) — delivers a delicious addition to the dining landscape in D.C.

[IMGCAP(1)]This downtown hot spot, which opened in September, features a menu created by Executive Chef Nicholas Stefanelli, formerly of Galileo and Maestro. You won’t see much red sauce here, but you will see lots of pastas, meats and even a few pizzas.

The menu is peppered with hits and only a handful of misses. When it comes to starters, you can’t go wrong with the burrata d’Andria, a cheese lover’s dream. Served quite simply as a ball of Pugliese mozzarella on a dish, topped with a few mushrooms and pine nuts, this dish is divine. The cheese is soft, creamy and satisfying.

The arancini — bite-sized balls of saffron rice and Parmesan cheese — is another tasty way to start the meal. Each fritter bursts with flavor and chewy rice. And the chestnut soup is a great antidote to a cold winter day. Served with a large dollop of grappa cream and chunks of sausage, the soup is light and creamy to the point that even the sausage seemed somehow airy. My only wish is that the soup was a touch sweeter, but even so, it was delicious.

The pasta at Bibiana is both inventive and memorable. Take the black spaghetti, for instance. Blue crab and “aglio, olio e peperoncino— — a mixture of garlic, oil and chili pepper — are served over the dark pasta, creating one of the more visually stimulating menu items. The crab is understated, and the pepper really pops on the back end.

My hands-down favorite dish on the menu was the bucatini. This dish was both simple, yet immensely satisfying. Made with tubes of pasta, red onion and chili, guanciale (Italian bacon) and pecorino cheese, the dish is crisp and fresh tasting. The chili adds a kick at the end of each bite.

The egg pizza is a welcome change from the normal pies one sees around town and is ideal for sharing over drinks with a friend. The crust is smothered in egg, lardo (cured pig fat) and cheese. The crust is chewy and the yolk runs throughout the pizza, adding a nice flavor.

But not every dish is a hit. The casoncelli, made with braised veal, pancetta, brown butter and sage, could have had more depth. The pancetta overpowered the other flavors, making the dish too salty and one-dimensional. The smoked potato gnocchi with Brussels sprouts and Pecorino cheese was tasty for the first few bites, but upon diving further into the dish, I was met with a pool of oil that detracted from the overall flavor. While I appreciated how light the gnocchi itself was, the oiliness of those last few bites overshadowed the good parts of the dish.

Then there is dessert, which is not to be missed. Douglas Hernandez, who most recently worked at Central, is a talent in the kitchen and has created a delectable menu filled with delicious, rich dishes. The best is the cheesecake. Made with butternut squash and a pistachio crust with an amaretto anglaise, this dessert fills your mouth with flavor and makes you feel warm inside. Get your chocolate fix with the chocolate-glazed mousse featuring chocolate “krunchies— and a custard center, which is smooth and rich.

The Italian fare is served in a gorgeous room. Designed by ARA Design, the restaurant features high ceilings decorated with beautiful chandeliers made of twisted metal. Large picture windows look out onto 12th and H streets, and the bar features sleek couches and stools, making it an ideal setting for a larger group. Show up on a Friday or Saturday night and the bar is packed with clusters of friends chatting away as they sip on wines by the glass and peruse the dinner menu, all of which is available at the bar.

I must admit, my thoughts on the service at Bibiana may be skewed. On one of my visits, I was immediately recognized as a critic and my young waiter was quickly swapped out for an older, more-experienced gentleman. Needless to say, the service was impeccable. Bajaj has done all that he can to make the diner’s experience a smooth one. From a coat check just inside the front door to a wait staff that asks for your valet ticket as you are served dessert, the restaurant is pleasant.

One thing that stands out at Bibiana is how simple each dish was. The chef takes a handful of recognizable ingredients — instead of obscure roots and vegetables or, even worse, unidentifiable purées — tosses them in a dish and leaves his customers extremely happy.