Unconventional Diner and L’Ardente: Word

Flair. Vivid. Oomph. Fiery. Spicy. Tasty. Charm. My brain is currently programmed to keep an eye out for five letter words as openers for Wordle and Quordle. These adjectives do double duty in my head, as I decide it’s time to take a break from word games and create some full sentences for my blog.  So here it is…. thoughts… and a pretty decent smattering of five letter words, about two restaurants helmed by gifted chef David Deshaies.   

Unconventional Diner: Classics with a Twist  

Unconventional Diner has been making me smile since it opened in late 2017. This is where Deshaies, who gained recognition at Michel Richard’s Citronelle and then Central, puts his spin on diner food. 

Where to go when you have a group with varying tastes and dietary restrictions? What about when you can’t decide if you are in the mood for Latin or Asian cuisine? Is it essential that you conclude your meal with desserts that are extra special?  If you’ve answered yes to any or all of these questions, Unconventional Diner is for you.   

You can indulge in the classics like a soothing bowl of matzah ball soup, fried chicken with a crackly exterior, and meatloaf kicked up with a sriracha glaze. I’ve been there and eaten all that. 

I am more likely to eat here because I can craft an eclectic meal that crosses continents. A recent visit has me munching on crunchy pot pie poppers and Moroccan taquitos as a precursor to Peking duck confit and miso salmon. The world tour continues with brussels sprouts flattered by caramelized onions and a dusting of tikka masala spices.  

Unconventional Diner pot pie poppers and Moroccan taquitos


Unconventional Diner Peking Duck Confit

Whichever path you take, know you are getting quality, consistent cooking. While I torture myself over what to order here, I am always satisfied with the results. 

Desserts are created by Deshaies’ wife Ana, who is an award-winning pastry chef. Her work is divine. I try to limit my sugar intake, but that flies out the window after one bite of Basque burnt cheesecake. The straightforward appearance belies the complex, velvety confection that is not to be missed.  

Unconventional Diner Basque burnt cheesecake

 Lemon tart with Italian meringue and basil sauce is simply a dream (which come to think of it, is another good 5-letter word). 

Unconventional Diner lemon tart

A bonus:  Unconventional Diner is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is ample outdoor seating. A happy hour was just launched, offering discounts on a selection of drinks as well as snacks from the dinner menu. The new happy hour will be offered weekdays from 3:30–6:30 p.m. at the bar only.

L’Ardente: Italian Food with Flair  

A little over a year ago David Deshaies turned his attention to L’Ardente in the new Capital Crossing development on Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest DC.  The French-born chef serves as a partner and culinary director at this lively Italian restaurant. Working alongside him is Chef de Cuisine Leena Ali. The restaurant makes a splash the moment it opens. I dash to dine here, and return twice more, generating new fans with each visit.  

My approach to ordering at L’Ardente mimics my Wordle strategy. While some people start their game the same way every time. I prefer to mix it up. I play around with a sampling from each section of the menu which includes cichetti (snacks), antipasti, pasta, pizza, and a handful of dishes designed for table-sharing. 

I adore (another great Wordle starter) dishes that exhibit whimsy (this is a great six-letter word. Have you tried Word Hurdle?)  Duck Hunt, featured in the cicchetti section of the menu, fits the bill with luxe ingredients served in a a miniature cup adorned with duck legs. Once you dig in, you recognize that the chef isn’t playing around. Green ravioli filled with shredded duck breast, foie gras and truffle swim in a pool of rich duck jus.  

L’Ardente Duck Hunt

Are you even on Instagram if you haven’t seen the photogenic and oh so delicious 40-layer lasagna at L’Ardente? A common sight – diners who peer down at their plate, count to make sure there are indeed 40 distinct layers, and finally pause to capture the dish in a photo. I also take in the aroma, which makes me weak in the knees. Thin sheets of pasta alternate between layers of braised short rib sugo and truffle mornay sauce. There is oomph in every bite. This lavish dish is best shared, so resist the temptation to keep it all to yourself.   

L’Ardente lasagna

Other pasta offerings may not steal the spotlight from the lasagna, but are equally swoon-worthy. Campanelle nera with lobster, fennel butter, tomato, and a touch of heat from calabrian chili isn’t necessarily Instagrammable. The wow factor is in the flavor.  

Pizzas are distinguished by a thin sourdough crust and unconventional toppings. My favorite is verdure, which currently showcases wood-roasted asparagus, smoked mozzarella, creamy ricotta and hollandaise. The ingredients shift to accommodate the season. An earlier version sported brussels sprouts and a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds.

L’Ardente Verdure pizza

I could happily make a meal solely from the antipasti section of the menu, where a wood-fired grill elevates every dish. I love carrots sparked up with yogurt, lemon, pistachio and pesto. Although grilled cabbage may not initially capture your attention, order it and you may become smitten. I fell for this versatile vegetable dressed up in an exciting combo of trout roe, currants, coriander, tarragon and beurre blanc.  

L’Ardente carote

Large format dishes intended for the table include whole barbecue chicken, grilled branzino, and Bistecca alla Fiorentina. I enjoy the chicken and branzino, but a return visit would have me focused on other sections of the menu. 

Desserts are by pastry chef Manabu Inoue. The perfect finale to Duck Hunt and 40-layer lasagna is the equally alluring tiramisu flambé. The server pours rum over a globe of chocolate and ignites it, fueling oohs and aahs from diners as they witness the meltdown. The reveal is a base of lady fingers made of espresso chocolate cake encasing tart passion fruit granita.  

L’Ardente Tiramisu Flambe

 Other desserts well-worth exploring include 13-layer chocolate cake with coffee amaretto sauce and chocolate mousse with raspberries, roasted hazelnuts and blood orange.  I can’t resist a refreshing dish of vanilla oat milk softserve swirled with mandarin sorbet, which helps to balance out the meal.

L’Ardente desserts

L’Ardente self-describes as “Italian glam.” A friend tells me this sends her into a frenzy as she struggles to match an outfit to that description. She lands on casual attire spiked up with a funky pair of earrings. This is spot on for a restaurant that balances elegance with some rustic touches. 

Unconventional Diner intersperses diner staples with dishes that have more of a world view, while L’Ardente weaves together Italian classes with distinctive offerings that take some wildly creative turns. Both restaurants are well worth a visit. As my mind slowly reverts back to its focus on 5-letter words, I have one more for you: ENJOY.

L’Ardente, 200 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC

Unconventional Diner, 1207 9th Street, NW, Washington, DC


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