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Domaso Trattoria La Dolce Vita Overlooking Georgetown

Chef Massimo De Francesca  photo by Darko Zagar

Chef Massimo De Francesca photo by Darko Zagar

By Jordan Wright

Massimo De Francesca had just been appointed the new and very promising executive chef at Domaso Resturant in the Hotel Palomar in Rosslyn, VA in the winter of 2008. At a Virginia-centric wine dinner held in the stunning Italian-modern restaurant, I sampled the young chef’s cuisine. I was impressed then, but thought I’d give him time to settle in and find his niche before I would write a serious review of his efforts.

A picture-perfect summery salad with cubes of yellow and red watermelon, pea tendrils and red radish dots arrived. A Wisconsin goat cheese dressing pulled the ensemble together nicely. But there were missed opportunities. Virginia has some of the best artisanal goat cheese around. Caromont Farms comes to mind, or Iron Rod from the Piedmont Valley, both near Charlottesville. The watermelon might have been injected with an herb-flavored pinot grigio infusion, mint or tarragon perhaps, to amp up the flavor until it can stand on its own by mid-July.

Pastry Chef Kevin Boxx, an eight-year veteran of Ritz Carlton Hotels and who has been featured on Discovery Channel’s “Great Chefs” series, made the Italian-style breads that nearly stole the show. Our small group went through several baskets of olive bread, crusty Tuscan loaf and cheese focaccia and begged, successfully, for more to take home. Customers can purchase these breads at the wine and salumeria shop, Domasoteca, on the main level of the hotel. (Remember to do this before dinner, as they will be most likely be closed by the time you finish your meal).

Cured trout atop al dente Israeli couscous was a delicious innovation and was accompanied by thinly shaved fennel and a tuna-caper emulsion that struck the right balance, the lemony capers and briny tuna playing off the sweet river fish.

Our next course consisted of concentrically placed circles of ruby-red lamb carpaccio, enhanced by salted ricotta (enter the eagerly awaited mint), and splashed with sour cherry vinaigrette, similar to a glaze or reduction. Consensual adoration for the dish ensued. The aesthetically pleasing presentation, as with all the others, revealed the chef’s panache, originality and meticulous attention to detail.

Unfortunately, the lighting in this oh-so-chic restaurant leaves the diner needing a flashlight to see the food. On an earlier visit, the manager raced over to our table thinking we had caught our hair on fire. As it happened my dining partner had tilted the buffalo horn candleholder toward the menu while trying to make out the tiny writing in the dim light. When the flame met the side of the holder, the putrid smell of burnt cuticle and dark smoke had filled the air. They still haven’t corrected this lack of sufficient lighting. Note to interior designer: Would you mind terribly if some tea lights were placed strategically on the tables?

On the menu, one selection, so ordinary-sounding one might overlook it, is lemon ricotta gnocchi. Ignore it and you will miss an in-house-made pasta so weightless and devoid of gravity it repeatedly flew off the plate and into our mouths. Shards of crab flavored every bite while the earthy-scented poppy seed truffle butter gently enveloped the “airborne” pasta that was topped with tomato confit. A chef can establish his reputation and define his style with a few sensational dishes and De Francesca’s glows with this delicious execution.

Several more dishes were presented, including a wonderful cedar-roasted Arctic char and a mid-Atlantic tile fish, also known as golden bass, wrapped in Parma ham, served with fava beans and done up with a quirky kumquat hollandaise that could have been more assertive.

Alas, I hesitate to mention the dessert. How did such a delightful meal take such an odd turn? What were two lumps of French mousse (Sacre Coeur!) doing on my Italian-principled plate? I wish I could tell you it was a trio of house-made gelati – hazelnut, chocolate and raspberry perhaps – or a creamy Arborio rice pudding with tender pears poached in limoncello and topped with a caramel amaretti streusel. Suffice it to say it would have been a total disappointment were it not for Chef Boxx’s utterly divine honey espresso tuiles that thrilled our little entourage.

A selection of international wines, featuring sustainable and environmentally-friendly practices, and highlighting small Italian vineyards and Oregon pinot noirs, was chosen from the restaurant’s extensive collection to pair perfectly with our dinner.

I will certainly return to this stylish spot and Chef De Francesca’s delicious food. The expansive terrace will be opening soon and will offer dining and cocktails and a picturesque view of Georgetown from across the river. Now that it’s warm and the light lingers, if I come early I can sit outdoors with like-minded friends and see how beautiful my dinner is without needing a torch to find it.

Recommended. Domaso Trattoria Moderna Hotel Palomar 1121 North 19th St.Arlington, VA 22209 703-351-1211

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Many food writers stumble over each other in a ridiculous effort to chronicle the latest restaurant openings and food trends. This approach is terribly unjust to hard-working chefs who, along with their devoted kitchen staff, labor mightily, often in cramped quarters and until ungodly hours, in hopes they will have a snippet of recognition for their herculean efforts.

When Chef De Francesca mentioned an anticipated rollout of his spring menu, I bided my time to see how he would interpret the upcoming season. With the arrival of the cherry blossoms along the Potomac I returned to Domaso Trattoria with high hopes. Many were fulfilled and a few were dashed. Here’s how it went:

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