601 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20004 (http://fioladc.com/)
*** and 1/2 (Excellent/Outstanding)
Fiola, the Italian fine dining bastion from Chef Fabio Trabocchi, has been well established for some years now. Recently, however, the original DC establishment from Chef Trabocchi has had much of its press stolen by his newest restaurant, the seafood-heavy, Fiola Mare. But, we may be seeing a resurgence from the former. With its supposed top-notch pasta and seafood, along with a recent shining review from Tom Sietsema in The Washington Post, Fiola was among the top choices in searching for a location for my mom’s milestone birthday celebration. And after our dining experience, there is no denying that the Trabocchi original continues to shine bright.
Though the evening begins with some confusion in attempting to find the entrance to the restaurant (although the address is 601 Pennsylvania Avenue, the actual entrance is on Indiana Avenue), once inside, everything falls into place. One of the more noticeable traits of Fiola is its hushed dining room. There were plenty of folks dining along with us, happily gobbling up their meals, but never was there a moment where we had to strain to hear, or yell to be heard. Service is polished – to be expected – but also warm and welcoming. Our server is more than willing to provide an overview of the menu, but more importantly, he was willing to converse and joke with the table. I tend to (sometimes unfairly) think of fine dining, and tasting menus in particular, as having a stodgy and uptight staff. Trabocchi’s staff, however, was both well trained, and well versed in making conversation. It’s a small, personal touch, and ensures an even more enjoyable experience.
Fiola features a tasting menu, but similar to our dinner at Charleston, your choices are mix and match to create a two, three, four, or five course meal, all of which come with a dessert. The menu is split into four categories: Appetizers, Pasta, Flora, and Sea & Land. While you are free to select from any of the four headings, Fiola also allows diners to swap in any of the Classics plates, which celebrate some of the great dishes from the restaurant’s past. (If you really cannot decide, the classics are available a la carte, too).
Our meal starts out right: with the delightful bread, which is an airy, light and buttery croissant. It’s a taste of things to come. You see, though Fiola may be an Italian restaurant, there are no hesitations when it utilizing butter. Keep that in mind should you go: dinner is rich, and even a seasoned food vacuum like myself felt as though I needed to be rolled out the door at the end of the evening. Moving onward, the kitchen sends out an amuse bouche of Sweet Panna Cotta with Chives and Truffle Air. The panna cotta has a wonderfully smooth consistency, but the dish lasts more than one bite (the hallmark of an amuse), and the punch of the chives clashes a little too hard with the sweetness of the custard and richness of the truffle. It’s an interesting idea, but not entirely successful.
But once our meal gets up and running, the kitchen quickly begins to shine. A first
course of Nova Scotia Lobster Bisque gives us a taste of what we are store for: generous portions of whole lobster meat are stacked in a bowl and gently surrounded by a rich and well-developed soup. The stock base has lobster flavor to spare, and an envy to so-called bisques across menus everywhere. Continuing with the lobster trend, Fiola Nova Scotia Lobster Ravioli is one of the signature dishes at both Fiola and Fiola Mare, and it is easy to understand why. The dish demonstrates how to perfectly execute with a singular ingredient as a focus: beautifully cooked lobster, generously stuffed into pillows of homemade pasta, and lightly coated in a rich cream sauce infused with additional lobster flavor. If the stuffing was not enough, two large pieces of fresh poached lobster sit atop the ravioli. Throughout the dish, the crustacean is meaty, rich, and sweet.
The kitchen continues to show off its formidable seafood chops in the Fisherman’s Bucatini & Tiger Prawn. The bucatini (think hollow spaghetti) is al dente, and soaks up the sauce,
laden with intense seafood stock, sea urchin, and acidity from San Marzano tomatoes. The Tiger Prawn that sits atop the dish is perfection: simply grilled, the sweetness of the prawn is a perfect foil to the acidic tomatoes and the savory stock. Taking a turn towards vegetables, the Venetian Risotto, Summer Squash, & Chanterelles is rich and creamy, offsetting the starch of the Arborio rice with fresh squash, and earthy mushrooms. And
although it ran a bit on the wintry end, Ossobuco Tortellini &
Veal Sweetbreads provides a lesson in balance. Savory shines
through in the slow cooked and tender veal tucked inside the tortellini, as well as the brown butter and parmesan used to sauce the dish. But the kitchen cuts through any notions of being one note by adding bright and acidic lemon zest to the filling. Meanwhile, crispy sweetbreads scattered throughout the dish add a contrast in texture to the soft and delicate pasta. The lesson here: pasta, of any type, is a must.
It’s difficult to match the high notes of the pasta course, but the entrees continue to push the limits. Miso Black Cod, Asparagus & Morels provides for Eastern-influence at the Italian-centric Fiola. The cod is beautifully cooked, with miso and bonito flakes adding savory and complex flavors to the fish. It’s tender and delicious. Branzino, Oysters & Caviar is decadence on a plate. The branzino – a mild, white fish – serves as a canvas for the unctuous, creamy sauce which is given some onion-y zing with leeks. Teamed up with caviar and oysters, the dish runs a little rich, albeit in the best way. The one letdown during the entree course was the Veal Ribeye & Foie Gras. The veal iss tender and lean, albeit a little rare for my taste. The dish, while well composed, fails to hit the highs of its peers. But, the standout protein is also the biggest surprise of the night. Given all the praise for the seafood, the Wagyu A5 Beef Ribeye is just a little tastier than the rest. It is also hands down, the best steak I have ever eaten. A nicely charred exterior gives way to an interior which literally melts in the mouth. Many a restaurant boasts the fat content of Wagyu, but Fiola is the first to use the beautiful marbling to its utmost potential. Listed on the menu as a classic, it is easy to see why.
As we wind down the evening, we try three separate desserts: Tiramisu, Chocolate &
Caramel, and Strawberry and Pistachio Tart. In addition to the dishes, we also get a nice
surprise: a note from Fabio and his wife, Maria, wishing my mom a happy birthday. It’s another small, but personal touch. As we move to the food, I find the Chocolate & Caramel to be a rich, decadent treat, and worthy of the splurge. The tart, meanwhile, is a bit of a disappointment. It lacks flavor; tasting neither of the eponymous strawberries or pistachios. Sad, given how pretty the tart looks. On the other hand, the tiramisu is light and airy, and leans toward the contemporary with an espresso gelée, and a crispy sugar tuile. It’s the most balanced of the desserts, and a decidedly nice end to the evening.
Penn Quarter may be a business area, but with Fiola (and the yet to be reviewed, but great, Rasika), it remains a dining destination. Great food, and great service on top, will never cease to keep the crowds from coming through. Bottom line: though it may be a splurge, Fiola displays some of the highest quality cooking in the District, and remains poised to stay near the top of D.C. dining scene.
Atmosphere: The dining room is quiet, with wood tables, comfortable and well-appointed chairs, and large banquettes with pillows. A large bar sits at the front of the restaurant, and seemed to be a comfortable and welcoming place to grab a drink and a meal. Service had the polish to be expected at a fine dining establishment, along with the friendliness and attentiveness that make the diner feel at home.
Noise: Hushed. Fabio Trabocchi’s ode to Italian fine dining brings some peace and quiet to the dining room. No problems holding a conversation here.
Recommended Dishes: Nova Scotia Lobster Bisque, Venetian Risotto with Summer Squash & Chanterelles, Fisherman’s Bucatini & Tiger Prawn, Fiola Nova Scotia Lobster Ravioli, Miso Black Cod with Asparagus & Morels, Wagyu A5 Beef Ribeye, Tiramisu, Chocolate & Caramel
Reservations: Strongly Recommended. The restaurant – well into its run – is still a hot commodity in the District. Even with a reservation made several weeks out, the earliest time slot our family could get was 7:45pm.
$$$$$ – $150 and above for dinner for two