Fare at The Artful Gourmet Is Not As Creative As It Sounds
The Artful Gourmet Bistro has recently relocated from its original home and expanded its operation from a gourmet carry-out with a scattering of tables to a full-blown restaurant with plum-painted walls, patio dining, and a pumped-up waitstaff. I’d never been to the original, but scouting reports glowed. The Artful Gourmet (folks invariably have trouble coming up with that name—I heard a lot along the lines of, “It’s called the Cook’s Table, or something”) was reportedly one of those suburban surprises, serving up quality cuisine in a featureless shopping center.
The new digs are window-bright and cheerful, with clothless tables spaced comfortably. The “artful” theme begins with framed reproductions of instantly recognizable works (Klimt’s “The Kiss”) and continues laboredly, irrelevantly, onto the printed menu, on which the appetizers are given consonant or rhyming names like Monet Mussels, Donatello Dippers, and Dali Calamari, and the entrées are referred to simply as the Cezanne, the Botticelli, or the Mona Lisa.
The menu is well-balanced and accommodating, with panini, sandwiches, and salads for everyday dining and more substantial fare for heartier appetites and leisurely weekend meals. But it offers little in the way of real innovation, and most of its contents will be familiar to folks who have been dining out in upscale bistros the last decade or so. The Artful Gourmet is catering, probably shrewdly, to a culinarily conservative clientele, but there are other fish in the sea worth eating besides salmon and tuna, other ingredients to toss with pasta besides capers, sun-dried tomatoes, and portobello mushrooms.
I talked my table into an expensive appetizer sampler, the El Greco ($27.95), which assembles four of the restaurant’s popular starters. And it turned out that the Artful Gourmet inverts the standard rule of American restaurant dining—the appetizers were disappointingly flat and toothless, while the entrées were more flavorful and adroitly composed.
Divided into two appetizers each on two Fiesta Ware plates, the presentation was unimpressive, almost perfunctory, a squandered opportunity. The best of them was a new menu addition, four fried scalloped breasts of chicken, breaded and seasoned with Caribbean spices, though the coating needed more oomph. Kandinsky Quesadillas made a nice visual impression, topped with brown and gold drizzles of, respectively, barbecue and honey Dijon sauce (a rare “art-y” touch here) but their insides were feeble. I picked up little roasted flavor from the watery portobello mushrooms, eggplant, and red peppers, and no tang at all from the creamy Gouda cheese. Golden crabmeat won tons boasted crispy skin, but the interior glop tasted overwhelmingly of cream cheese. The fried calamari was about as dull as I’ve tasted, breading barely spiced, the squid itself mushy, with no help coming from a wan marinara sauce.
But the entrées redeemed the meal, and almost the Artful Gourmet experience itself. The Barocci ($19.95), another new menu listing, sautés up fork-tender veal medallions with portobello and button mushrooms in a choice Marsala wine sauce. Just delicious. Accompanying redskin mashed potatoes were dense and creamy. The vegetable of the day, broccoli, while breaking down nicely into manageable florets, called for some fillip of sauce or seasoning.
The Artful Gourmet does very nice work with the fish it considers worth serving, too. The kitchen tops a mammoth tuna steak ($18.50) with chopped tomatoes, basil-infused balsamic vinegar, and a sprinkling of pine nuts, flavors that combine into first-breeze-of-summer pleasure. The Renoir ($16.50) offers a good piece of salmon sautéed in garlic-wine-lemon sauce placed, with plentiful capers, atop a bed of al dente angel-hair pasta. Good and simple, although it all would have pleased the eye more on any Fiesta Ware color than sunflower. I’m just saying. And there are numberless ways of making paella, but I like mine zingy, garlicky, and robust. So here, it was the tomato broth that undermined an otherwise impressively assembled paella, the Last Supper ($17.95), canceling out whatever subtle saffron flavors had been simmered into the rice.
I hate to play the cosmoboy card, but I think the Artful Gourmet, in spite of its pleasant ambiance and mostly sturdy kitchen, is boring, which makes it hard to argue that it’s worth the trip outside the Beltway. They’re playing things safe here, and I’d love to see them shake up their clientele. Maybe hang up a “Piss Christ”? Or how about some grouper?