When my wife Jun and I check out new restaurants, the visual aspect of our experience, whether it’s the décor of the dining space or the plating of the food, is often secondary to our overall evaluation. No matter how humbling a venue or a dish looks, ultimately the satisfaction to our palate is what makes our culinary journey together so much meaningful and fulfilling. As such, we don’t always gravitate toward new venues with glitzy atmosphere like many typical hotel restaurants, and we have certainly had mixed experiences with places that offered dazzling visual effects on their plating and technique. When we recently visited L’Ardente in Capital Hill with another couple, I was struck by the sleek design of the dining room and the bar area. The restaurant had been getting some positive reviews including on Washington Post, so we were hoping that the food would match the sophistication of the space. Unfortunately, our experience fell a bit short.
The Italian restaurant opened by chef David Deshaies, who also leads Unconventional Diner which Jun and I checked out last year and had a solid meal, seems to try to hit the sweet spot between casual and fancy, with many of the crowd pleaser dishes coming from a wood-burning grill. The meal started with a playful dish called duck hunt consisting of duck-filled ravioli and foie gras in little cups with toy duck legs; it was quite a delicious appetizer that raised our expectations but sadly it was also the highlight of our meal. In our experience, Italian is also served best when trying not to do much and focusing instead on freshness of ingredients and thoughtful execution. Among the other starter dishes, such as arancini with saffron and mozzarella, Caesar salad with little gem lettuce, carrot with yogurt, lemon and pistachio, burrata with grilled peach and heirloom tomato and grilled octopus with patatas bravas, none of them gave memorable impressions; they were just about right but didn’t quite have the soulful touch of Italy’s wonderful cuisine.
Neither did the pastas, including the much-hyped lasagna with 40 layers and short rib sugo. Certainly, the lasagna (at a rather pricey $36) looked beautiful and did have hearty feel to it, but I was somewhat underwhelmed by the relative lack of textural appeal. The massive whole grilled branzino with fennel and tomato was good but we had better cooked branzino elsewhere paying less than $74 the restaurant charged us. Even for the desserts, the presentation exceeded taste; for all the stunning flaming preparation, you would think the tiramisu would be magnificent but it turned out to be surprisingly pedestrian (although Jun, a tiramisu aficionado, did appreciate it), as did the playfully plated panna cotta with ricotta that wasn’t quite as delightful as it looked. While we were sharing the colorful soft serve of vanilla oat milk ice cream and Mandarin sorbet, all of us in the party were left wondering how the restaurant could have offered a better experience.
Whatever our experience was, L’Ardente has been getting a lot of hype so if you want to try it and get a table at the dining room, booking in advance via Resy is recommended; you can also try your luck at the bar seating showing up early. The restaurant has a full bar with competently crafted cocktails and Italian-leaning wine list. As mentioned above, if you are all about having a dinner at an upscale venue with stylish ambiance and a lot of handsome looking young crowds, L’Ardente would be the right place for you. I wish we had a more memorable time at L’Ardente and hope the execution of the kitchen improves over time to focus not on what will draw the crowd but what makes Italian food such a universally loved cuisine around the world. Until then, our quest for a go-to Italian restaurant in DC will continue.
KenScale: 7.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 7.5/10)
Address: 200 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC 20001
Reservation via Resy