Sometimes in life we hope, in spite of past disappointments and unmet desires, that this time it will be different. That’s how I felt before setting foot inside Eola, the latest culinary addition to West Dupont.
For several years now, the 2000 block of P Street has been a street of broken dining dreams. In 2006, it lost seafood-aficionados’ favorite Johnny’s Half Shell to Capitol Hill. Then when Kimptom Hotel and Restaurant conglomerate built Hotel Palomar, adding so-so hotel restaurant but decent wine bar Urbana to the P Street dining mix, many surrounding businesses and residents complained of the growing pains associated with ongoing construction hampering what was an already intimate street. Now recently restaurants like Mark & Orlando’s, Mimi’s and 21P have all passed on to be replaced by a new crop of aspiring establishments brave enough to stake its claim on a street known for high restaurant turnover.
Nestled in a street of casual chain, sushi and pizza eateries, Eola offers the hope of something more gastronomically advanced than its neighbors. Derived from the word eolian meaning “to be carried by the wind,” it touts an ever-changing farmer’s market-inspired menu that “expresses the true essence of each season.” Assuming the space previously occupied by Mark & Orlando’s, chef-owner Dan Singhofen has transformed the Victorian brownstone into two stories of unpretentious chicness.
Unfortunately, the restaurant misses the mark on many fronts. With a sparse setting of tables (the first floor seats 24), one feels a certain emptiness in a room that fails to deliver a “fresh from the farm” coziness you would desire. This can be fixed though: throw some decent curtains on the windows, replace the generic, commercial-style glass and metal door leading into the main dining area, and add some small vases of fresh flowers on each table – problem solved.
Then the wine list: another disappointment. Although we enjoyed a nice Pinot Noir from Oregon, Eola continues a trend that plagues most DC restaurant owners and chefs – not a single wine on the list hails from local Maryland or Virginia vineyards. If restaurants want to truly “go local,” half the menu cannot be imported from Chile or the other side of the country.
Finally the meal: it was a roller coaster ride, hitting a high note with a Pumpkin Panna Cotta starter that included a complement of two types of beets, a smattering of walnuts and a playful layer of foam. It was a visual and oral delight. But it took a turn downward with a Quinault River Steelhead Trout that seemed to ignore the rules of balance and texture (PS – a fish from Quinault River in Washington state is a long way from home). Cooked a l’unilateral, a classic French frying technique in which the whole fish (not butterflied) is fried skin side down until it is heated all the way through, the trout came off thermally uneven and overly soft. (NOTE: Salmon tends to pull this technique off better since it has a firmer, flakier texture). Maybe the dish could have been remedied with the right seasoning and accompaniments, but adorned with some course salt and served over a bed of wilted greens, capers and coco beans, the end result was a nugatory “salty mush.” I took two bites and pushed the remainder over to Steve.
Even after the unsatisfactory entree, I haven’t written Eola off entirely. The quality and portion of food is substantial enough that we shared the starter and entree (which they graciously split for us) and were able to leave satiated on a meal that totaled $56. The menu is simple yet variegated and adventurous, and there seems to be the promise that chef Singhofen might be able to deliver the local goods. However, after dining, I am less hopeful that P Street has found its standout.