Iron Gate Inn
[from November 1999 issue]

Back in the peak of summer's humidity, several of us stopped by the Iron Gate Inn in the 1700 block of N Street for an early, damp dinner. Charming, it was, with the overhead trellis propping up wisteria and grape-bearing vines. A lion's head fountain splashed quietly, the brickwork looked Italianate, and couples dined intimately by candlelight. All this made for a stagy setting for the chef's interesting and somewhat complex Mediterranean-inspired food that starred grape leaves, roasted red peppers, braised lamb shanks, garlic, roasted chicken, and hummus with warm Arabic bread.

The food was not always so pleasing, reported a friend, who noted that in the past several years, this old-timer in downtown DC had not offered consistently fine fare. Whatever problems the kitchen may have had, however, somebody has fixed them; on a second recent visit--at lunchtime, when busy execs seem to select this offbeat location for private tete-a-tetes--the food was as good as I'd remembered from that summer's evening, maybe even better, because this time, I had the lamb shank.

Braised to perfection with a generous sprinkling of rosemary, the shank simmers quietly in its juices, the meat falling in big, flavorful chunks from the bone. It's a lamb shank as it should be, so tender that you need only a fork to slice the meat, and so flavorful that you wonder how to prolong your meal. Order another shank? you may debate.

As sides, the chef garnishes the plate with roll-cut carrot chunks, al dente and sweet, and a mound of Parmesan-speckled orzo. You may long for mashed potatoes instead, but somehow this Greek pasta glistening with butter suits the occasion. Other entrees, in case you don't adore lamb shanks, included several fish dishes (yellowfin tuna and sautéed wild rock fish), a chicken paillard, and a Mediterranean vegetable tagine with couscous, plus several entree salads of crabmeat, grilled chicken breast, or a salade nicoise with grilled tuna.

As for appetizers, your choices might well run to mozzarella and tomatoes, though this is a seasonal dish and tomatoes are past their prime; or mussels with white wine; a goat cheese torte with charred red pepper coulis; roasted red peppers with white raisins and pine nuts; and a fairly decent hummus which could have taken a bigger dose of garlic, olive oil and black pepper to become perfection.

The chef really hits his stride with dessert, or at least, with the chocolate truffle pie with raspberry sauce. It's been weeks since my lunch, but memories of the velvety texture and that intense chocolate thrill linger on. Dessert choices are limited, with others including a tiramisu and a pecan pie with vanilla ice cream. The chocolate pie would win, hands down.

Even if you are not a lambaholic and can't stand chocolate, you'll find enough on the menu to pique and keep your interest. Besides, the Inn offers a rare kind of European ambiance lacking in this hard-edged city. Its entryway looks like a displaced Spanish courtyard with wagon wheels and white-washed brick. The outdoor patio, as noted, is the most charming setting in the city. And indoors, the atmosphere is dark and sort of 17th-century country inn-ish, I guess. At least, it's slightly romantic and features heavy, dark woods with plenty of decorative items adorning every available inch.

In the summer, I'd return just for the joy of eating al fresco in the patio. All year, I'd return just for the joy of that lamb shank.

Iron Gate Inn, 1734 N St.; 737-1370. Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-2:30; Dinner, Mon.-Thu., 5:30-9:30pm; Fri. & Sat., 5:30-10pm. Lunch entree prices, $11-$14. Major credit cards accepted.

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