On Monday night, tempted by Open Table's "Appetite Stimulus Plan" ($24 for two courses at lunch; $35 for three courses at supper) promotion and the fact that my wife has recently taken a new job nearby, we made an early reservation, 6:30, at the highly-regarded Italian restaurant i Ricchi in Washington DC. My wife and I checked our coats and were seated at a table for two, immediately parallel to and two feet away from another such table. This wouldn't normally be a problem, but these particular neighbors not only spent much of the evening gabbing on their cell phones, they even ran a charging cord from their table to a nearby outlet. The place filled up fast, which was a bit surprising on a rainy, cold Monday evening.
It's a very attractive dining room, with an open kitchen. Unfortunately, the opening to the kitchen is quite high, so all you can see are the heads and shoulders of the kitchen staff -- not even enough to tell where the various stations are located.
The list of Italian wines is quite extensive, offering more lesser-known varietals and regions than usual. Nice large wine glasses were delivered, along with very small water tumblers, which must have been topped up ten times during our meal. We ordered a decently priced, inexpensive 2003 primitivo ($59), and settled back with the menus.
While other restaurants in the area were touting the "Appetite Stimulus Plan" in their windows, nothing was in evidence at i Ricchi, and we never saw or were offered the promotional menus, so I can't comment on their offerings.
We were provided with a basket of mixed breads, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. The olive oil was particularly good, rich and fruity; the vinegar was good, but nothing outstanding, approximating what we use at home for cooking. A focaccia-like bread was well received, but the slices of typical Italian bread were inferior -- heavily crusted, with a very bland interior of overly fine crumb.
We shared a plate of proscuitto with "Florentine bread fritters," which turned out to be beignet-like in shape and size, and tasted midway between pizza dough and pita bread. The ham was really excellent, but was accompanied by chunks of melon so unripe they never should have been served by a restaurant of this repute.
We next shared a dish of risotto with braised veal and mushrooms. The dish had a perfect autumn flavor, but the rice was far overcooked, so much so that I have no idea whether the rice was arborio, carnaroli, or vialone nano, Italian or American. The grains were so large and plump that they almost looked like barley; from the size alone, it must have been arborio.
Both these dishes were split by our waiter between our plates, so that we didn't have to wrestle with the sharing.
I was tempted to try i Ricchi's brick chicken, to see how it stacked up against what we make at home, but we were warned by our waiter that that dish was not a strength of the kitchen. So my wife had their "half chicken basted with lemon, fresh sage leaves and olive oil grilled over oak coals," while I ordered a veal chop done in a style (something like "Cielina"?) which is not on the Web site menu.
The chicken dish was served with absolutely wonderful roasted potatoes, but the chicken itself, while quite moist and tasty, despite the lemon slice on top, gave up no flavor of lemon or sage.
The waiter had warned that the veal chop would be "cooked through," which I took to be a by-product of the style claimed on the menu, but it turned out to be simply grilled, with no discernible added spicing, herbs, or flavor. As a result, the chop was medium well-done and quite dry. Had it been medium-rare to medium, it might have been enjoyable. It was accompanied by a large block of fried polenta, which was very good indeed.
Both dishes included warm but virtually raw carrot slices coated with a butter sauce. They looked appealing, but tasted like large slices of the same synthetic "carrot" material invariably found in fried rice dishes at every Chinese restaurant. (Some day I'm going to figure out where they mine that stuff...)
We skipped the cheeses, which consisted of an Italian blue, which would have been appalling with the last of the primitivo, and the usual hard Italian cheeses that neither of us finds appealing after supper, and plunged straight into dessert: a four-cheese "torte di formaggio" and a dish of house-made lemon sorbet. The sorbet was excellent, but a very small portion; the cheesecake, despite the enticing description, was indistinguishable from any well-made ricotta cheesecake, with a crust laden with unannounced walnuts.
Capping the meal with acceptable Illy espresso, we decided to quit while we were ahead (we were ahead, weren't we?), and headed home for Calvados and Cognac. The total bill was $211 plus tip.
Our verdict: a very attractive dining room, but bathrooms that need sprucing up; a decent meal, but a solid disappointment overall. Despite the stellar reputation, the food was ordinary -- every dish we were served was either inferior to a similar dish at another area restaurant (e.g., the veal chop at Da Domenico), or inferior to what I make at home (e.g., the risotto). It also didn't help that my chair was rammed by the staff six or seven times during the meal -- maybe it's me, since the same thing happened the last time we dined at Citronelle. Considering the price and level of food quality, I'm afraid we won't return.
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