One of the dilemmas of having a restaurant review blog is that I always want to try new places so I can write about them. I don’t have the luxury of being able to try a restaurant more than once before writing a review. I wish I did because I know that writing about a single experience doesn’t really present a full picture. That said, one of the ways I measure how I really feel about a dining experience is to think about whether I want to go back, and how soon.
We are going out to dinner with cousins A & B. They tend to frequent a handful of restaurants rather than try new places. Granted their wheelhouse includes some excellent restaurants, but I think its time for them to stray out of their comfort zone. I recognize that this can go horribly wrong if we have a bad experience.
We agree on Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca which is the Italian restaurant from restaurateur Ashok Bajaj (Rasika, Ardeo + Bardeo, 701, etc). My husband and I dined there in its infancy and liked it, but frankly we weren’t compelled to rush back. But the time is right for another visit. Bibiana is listed in Washingtonian‘s 100 Best Restaurants 2012 as “on the rise.” Plus, I’ve read rave reviews about Chef Nicholas Stefanelli’s black spaghetti with crab. I have already decided that I will not be swayed by anything else on the menu.
When a meal starts off with really great bread it sets the tone. Bibiana serves a warm, crusty on the outside, soft on the inside, foccacia bread dotted with bits of potato. It’s actually reminiscent of a potato knish. Dip it in a wonderfully aromatic olive oil and you almost can end the meal right here. But then that would be foolish. It’s a good sign that we’ve already found something that warrants a return visit.
For my first course I have crispy fried artichokes with parsley and lemon. They are crisp but not too oily, with a nice balance of salt and citrus.
Cousin A has saffron rice fritters (arancini) with tomato sauce, which are well executed, although she prefers the version at Two Amy’s. I can’t compare, but I like the crunchy texture of the Bibiana offering.
My husband has barbabietola, which is salt roasted beets with gorgonzola, and candied black olives. The delicate and subtly sweet gorgonzola transforms what could be just another beets and cheese dish into something special.
I must admit that I am a little too full to thoroughly appreciate the spaghetti al nero di seppia (black spaghetti with crab) dish beyond the first few bites. (All those times I warned my children not to fill up on bread are coming back to haunt me.) But I’ll always remember those first bites of chewy pasta lightly coated with garlic, oil, peperoncino, and generous pieces of crabmeat. This is not to say that I don’t nearly finish the dish. It really is too delicious to leave uneaten.
Cousin A has decided to keep it simple. She has ravioli with romano cheese, tomato, and basil. She finds the cheese a little too strong, although overall she enjoys the dish. I am pleasantly surprised to find that the ravioli is not at all simple. It’s actually the strongly flavored cheese that adds character.
My husband and cousin B order the same dish- Amalfi Coast scialatielli with yellow tail tuna, green olives, tomato, and chili. Cousin B, however, modifies the dish, leaving out the olives and asking that the tuna not be rare. He doesn’t love the modified results. My husband on the other hand does, particularly the flavor of the olives and the dense texture of the pasta.
All’s well with a meal that ends well. Dessert at Bibiana hits the right note. Cousin A orders baked chocolate mousse with a dark chocolate overcoat, dulce de leche gelato and a tuille of coffee and chocolate. The smooth, rich, dessert feels like a guilty pleasure that’s worth the guilt.
My husband and I are having a hard time agreeing on a dessert. He finally agrees to share panna cotta with lemon tuille and blood orange. He is not particularly excited about this choice, but he changes his tune when he tastes the tart, smooth, refreshing dessert.
The service at Bibiana is competent, although our server could exhibit a touch more personality. We also feel a bit rushed. We are compelled to hand over our table before we’re quite ready. On the plus side, we appreciate the sleek setting and while the tables are full, we can all hear each other without shouting.
A&B aren’t quite as enthusiastic about the meal as we are. But I consider it a success just the same. Because when I ask the question “would you go back?” I get a yes. For me, a return trip would mean that my restaurant to do list doesn’t get checked off quite so quickly. But another chance to taste the bread, the black ink spaghetti, and the baked chocolate mousse dessert just might be worth the sacrifice.
Bibiana Osteria Enoteca, 1100 New York Ave. NW (Entrance at 12th and H), Washington, DC