Approachable Ardeo Still Knocks It Out of Cleveland Park
On a recent blistering hot day, Ardeo’s cool interior beckoned passersby through the restaurant’s big storefront windows. Inside is a soothing space that hides a delightful secret in this well-established neighborhood spot on Connecticut Avenue in the heart of Cleveland Park.
The clean, simple design scheme of stark white and blue-gray walls relieved by photographic floral triptychs and colorful Lucite light panels make for a subtle backdrop to the artwork of executive chef Alex McWilliams, who joined Ardeo last fall. Now well in his stride, McWilliams is turning out dishes that are approachable, elegant and often inspired.
McWilliams spent time on both coasts prior to relocating to Washington to take over the kitchen at Ardeo and its sister wine bar Bardeo. Along the way he picked up Asian and Mediterranean techniques that he blends with traditional French elements to create an amalgam that reflects the melting pot nature of modern American cuisine.
Like so many of his peers, McWilliams relies on fresh local organic ingredients as the cornerstone to build his dishes. Because he focuses on seasonality, his preparations vary regularly with availability. But they are all structured around three sizes: appetizers, smallish plates that offer a few bites; slightly large middle plates that are nice to share as an appetizer and can serve as a main dish for small appetites; and full-size entrées. By mixing and matching from the three groups, you can sample the full range of McWilliams’s creativity.
McWilliams has put together several salads that make perfect starters. On the simple side, a mixed green salad is paired with a ricotta salada and red wine vinaigrette. Kicking it up a notch but still straightforward, the heirloom black cherry tomato salad marries little bites of summer sweetness with lemon cucumbers, Iberico cheese and watercress all dressed with a light white balsamic vinaigrette. More robust and sweet, the frisee and spinach salad is rich with honey goat cheese and candied almonds dressed in an aromatic vanilla vinaigrette. While these salads emphasize the green, the star is the peeky-toe crab salad that uses only a small garnish of micro mizuna lettuce for accent, while the body of the dish is a mound of rich but mild crab salad served with avocado, grapefruit slices and grapefruit gelee.
Shellfish appears in several other intriguing forms. Plump citrus-cured scallops are served with pineapple condiment, dehydrated ginger and zenzero oilo. “Big one” mussels are steamed in cider vinegar, shaved fennel and thyme to produce an almost sweet and sour savor that is quite unusual among mussel preparations. But it’s the fat, fresh oysters, shucked when you order, that are served with the most startling thing on the menu. The briny treats have been paired with a pickled shallot and black peppercorn sorbet that pops your eyes wide open. It’s hard to imagine how it was ever conceived, but you are glad it was as you chase down the salty slide of the oyster with the cold, sharp yet refreshing bite of the sorbet.
This has been a great summer for tomatoes, and McWilliams doesn’t miss the chance to showcase some of the season’s best in his heirloom tomato bruschetta. Sliced thickly and served simply with fresh mozzarella, basil and arugula, it’s a reminder that tomatoes are indeed the perfect fruit.
The medium plates include several hardier choices. Tender natural beef skirt steak is charbroiled and served with smooth-as-satin potato puree and unusually delicious thin spears of asparagus that are breaded and fried. An interesting pasta dish meanwhile is prepared in a risotto style, featuring tiny al dente grandanina pasta mixed with wild mushrooms and chopped baby asparagus in a surprisingly light pasta offering.
Two fish dishes are particularly noteworthy. The freshwater trout is roasted and interestingly paired with steamed brussels sprout leaves, tiny baby turnips and a not-too-sweet heirloom apple puree. The ahi tuna is rolled in a smoked tea crust, sliced thick, and seared until just cooked and then served with carnaroli rice and wild mushroom cakes. The tea imparts an unusual flavor to the tuna, and the mushrooms complement the dish with a woody overtone.
Entrées at Ardeo give diners a chance to go as elegant or as casual as the mood strikes. Refined fish dishes include the grilled Scottish salmon paillard served with a salad of baby lima beans and haricot verts dressed in cara cara orange vinaigrette, as well as the roasted Alaskan halibut with heirloom potatoes, English peas and black truffle spuma.
One of the standouts though is the skate wing. A large piece of the tender fish is pan roasted until slightly crisp on the outside and melt-in-your-mouth flaky inside. Served with lemon-caper butter and paired with a big pile of homemade sweet potato fries, its flavors offer sharp contrasts that balance nicely.
Other dishes such as the chicken are anything but routine. Pieces of a small organic bird are pressed and pan roasted until the skin has a nice crunch. Paired with a smooth celery root puree, Sardinian faro and chunks of sweet Tuscan melon, the chicken dish proves that even the most homely ingredient can be elevated to new levels with special treatment.
Long a staple of Ardeo’s menu, the charbroiled natural beef burger is dressed up with smoked bacon, thick slices of tomato from a local garden, cheddar cheese, sambal aioli and hand-cut fries. While the dish may be a standard, the preparation is definitely not.
Desserts are as inventive as the other parts of the menu. Chocolate is paired with medjool dates in a moist, rich cake served warm with a spectacular mascarpone gelato, accompanied by little drips of passion fruit sauce and whole pistachios (We would have liked more of the sauce, which is used more as a garnish than as a flavor element). Also be sure to ask if there is a special for the evening. On a recent visit, there was a frozen lemon soufflé that if we are lucky enough will end up on the menu. Served with raspberry sauce, the sweet tart dish was a perfect end to an altogether delightful meal.
Right next door, Ardeo’s sister wine bar Bardeo provides a sharp contrast but is equally inviting. Warm yellow walls, original paintings of people in various city scenes, a large bar and omnipresent wine bottles create a more casual feel just right for lingering over a bottle with friends. McWilliams has put together a number of unique small plates there that are worth stepping over to taste, as they aren’t available at Ardeo. Sommelier Brent Kroll manages the wine list for both establishments and has put together an international list that emphasizes European varietals and runs a bit on the high side.
Ardeo has received recognition as a neighborhood gathering place by the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, but thinking of this spot as just a convenient place to gather for a quick bite would be to underestimate what is happening inside. True the price point makes it affordable enough to visit often and the service is familiar, though not offensively so. But the work that McWilliams is doing makes it worthy of a special night out.
About the Author
Rachel G. Hunt is the dining reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.