Acacia Bistro and Wine Bar is the type of place that you might drive or walk by time and again before you even realized it was there. A small spot, seating only 60 people in the dining room and eight at the bar (95 with outside dining area), Acacia takes advantage of its corner location on Connecticut Avenue and Yuma Street with huge windows on two sides that let in plenty of light, even on drab winter days. The sidewalk seating expands the space significantly and is a lovely spot for clement days any time of year.
But while casual passersby might not have noticed Acacia, devoted fans know perfectly well what delights are hidden behind the unassuming exterior, having followed Acacia’s venerable chef Liliana Dumas from Trattoria Liliana, where she headlined with her husband Maurizio, to the late Locanda on Capitol Hill and Assaggi Mozzarella Bar in Bethesda, Md.
When Acacia opened in spring 2010 under the expert hands of chef Dumas and her son, general manager and sommelier Michel Dumas, it brought a badly needed infusion of superior cooking to the Van Ness neighborhood, which has yet to see the explosion of good restaurants that so many others areas of the city have experienced in the last five years.
But all good things must come to an end. Chef Dumas has retired. To fill her large shoes, Acacia brought in a familiar face of Washington’s dining-out community. Ravi Narayanan has an eclectic background, having worked in top spots at notable restaurants on several continents since he began his culinary career as an apprentice to master French chef Robert Greault, well known locally for his work at the late lamented La Colline on Capitol Hill.
As Dumas built up Acacia’s menu, she focused on Mediterranean cuisine by offering specialties from the Liguria region of Italy from which she hailed. Since joining Acacia, Narayanan has reduced the size of the menu, choosing instead to offer dishes that change on a regular basis (he plans to shift offerings every six to eight weeks). At the same time, he has retained many of the longtime favorites and the modest flair for which the bistro has earned respect.
Dumas included classical Italian comfort dishes such as the anchovy toast and brandada de bacalau. Narayanan’s versions, which offer a study in contrasts, are every bit as good as the originals. The crunchy fried anchovy toast bursts with a salty-fishy paste that is cut by a sharp lemon aioli. The dish is perfect in its simplicity. The brandada, a more complex small plate, is a dense emulsion of dried salted cod, potatoes and olive oil. Served with crostini, the dish is rich yet mild and surprisingly not salty considering its source.
In general, Narayanan does not hone to any particular culinary style, having experience that cuts across many different traditions. He uses whatever ingredients and techniques he needs to create his vision of pure and simple dishes where each flavor stands out. Narayanan ensures that everything is fresh, and though he does not stick with exclusively local products (there is unfortunately no local source for black truffles), he works with what is available to create highly seasonal dishes as much as possible.
Narayanan faces the same challenges as his predecessor: a small kitchen space with limited capacity. In restricting the menu and bringing in everything daily, he has simplified the kitchen operation, which in turn allows him to devote greater attention to individual dishes. Acacia now makes all of its own stocks, pastas and even charcuterie in house, which had not always been the case. While more labor intensive, it helps to ensure that each dish emerges exactly according to Narayanan’s plan.
The structure of Acacia’s new menu is also flexible, with a nice selection of starters and small plates that work well for casual meals and afternoon snacks. A healthy selection of entrées suits more formal dining, and the tempting desserts are ideal for any and every occasion.
Among the small plates, there are a few that are just short of spectacular. One taste of the fritura de repollos — deep-fried kale and brussels sprout leaves dressed with baharat spices and served with tzatziki — could make you swear off potato chips forever. Who would have thought the humble sprout could end up like this?
Another winning combo is the duet de salchichas, delicious house-made sausages of grilled lamb and venison served with a silky smooth celery root puree and mellow red wine syrup. The boulettes de pate de porc et canard is equally surprising. Pork and duck rilette is wrapped in potato lollipops, deep fried, and served with spicy Dijon mustard. These morsels are like junk food on steroids and might be just as addicting.
After a couple of the rich starters, you might be inclined toward something a bit lighter as a main course. The baked black truffle crêpes, stuffed with 10-vegetable ragu and served with mixed greens, is a savory choice.
Narayanan also does some nice pastas, some light, some not so. As a starter, he offers a ricotta and sage gnocchi with rosemary honey-glazed root vegetables, lavender and chervil that eschews traditional versions of the pasta. Narayanan’s gnocchi are small, delicate and slightly overpowered by the vegetables, while the herbs lend an elegant bouquet to the small but highly satisfying dish. Meanwhile, a much heartier pappardelle comes with a rich braised lamb ragu. Big chunks of tender lamb vie with carrot rounds while the inventive addition of turnip introduces a slightly bitter note to the sauce. It’s an interesting and effective innovation. Fettuccine with wild mushroom sauce is also delicious, though the description of it as a cream sauce is slightly misleading since it seems more oil olive- than cream-based. But the misnomer is a minor quibble in an otherwise stellar dish.
One of the particularly intriguing aspects of Narayanan’s work is how he pairs the main element with creative accents. Cabbage crepinette; huckleberry gastrique sauce; sun-dried tomato ginger chutney; potato mousseline; fresh dill blini; tart of caramelized endive; shallots and lardons all make an appearance and are worth several trips or a big group willing to share and taste them all.
Narayanan also admirably aims to show diners the range of true Mediterranean flavors, so shellfish pops up routinely on the menu. The seafood bisque risotto with grilled prawn and seafood sausage is a robust medley of Mediterranean delights. A more refined choice is the large sea scallops, pan seared and served with a saffron leek risotto, hen of woods mushrooms and charred shallot sauce, all perfectly prepared with a slightly caramelized crust. Lamb also turns up in several places, the most appealing of which may be the lamb shank entrée. Roasted with Moroccan spices, tomato and aromatic vegetables, and complemented by mint gremolata and coarse-grained Israeli couscous in a tomato sauce, the flavor almost transports you to sunnier climes.
As a wine bar, not surprisingly Acacia has put considerable effort into developing its wine list. Michel Dumas has assembled a collection that, while not huge, is well balanced and affordable, with labels from around the world. Every selection is available by the half glass, full glass, quarter liter or bottle, making it possible to do a lot more tasting than is usually possible. Dumas has also put together a fun set of wine flights if you want to leave the choosing to someone else.
Liliana Dumas was well known for her desserts, which relied more on the flavor of the ingredients than mere sweetness for their appeal. Longtime Acacia fans will not miss her absence. Besides a decadent chocolate tart with “melting” chocolate truffle and the lighter pear and vanilla bean brioche served with wine-poached pear, Narayanan offers a pistachio trinity that is truly brilliant. This concoction of vanilla sponge cake, pistachio dacquoise, pistachio mousse, pistachio, crème anglaise and fudge sauce is rich, sweet and nutty, but surprisingly light. And it’s worth the trip all by itself.
Narayanan has explained that his approach to cooking rests on the three pillars: cuisine of the moment, cuisine natural, and cuisine inspiration. This triumphant trio has given Acacia a successful second act that should not be missed.
Acacia Bistro and Wine Bar
4340 Connecticut Ave., NW
Phone: (202) 537-1040
Hours: Mon. – Thu., 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Fri., Sat., 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.; Sun.: closed
Small plates: $5 – $12
Entrées: $19 – $26
About the Author
Rachel G. Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.