Mercury's Divine Fare
[from November 2001 issue]

It's a wonder what a little change in ownership will do for a restaurant kitchen. Well, more specifically, for the food. When my friend Robert and I first dined here some years back, we marveled at the eclectic meal we ate. Frankly, it was odd, a mismatch of flavors and textures that certainly kept us guessing: Just what did the chef have in mind??

Now under the direction of talented Floriana, the kitchen is standing on firm ground: no more flights of fancy and nothing so strange as to defy definition. What you order is what you get, and you'll be happy for it. Our only complaint was that the service was both fragmented and frustratingly slow. As it turned out, we think, the dining room was shorthanded, needing at least two more waitstaff to keep things moving. And just as we were winding up the meal, a second person came on duty.

Whether or not Floriana has tinkered much with the décor I can't say. But it is both inviting and intimate, with tables in the two main-floor, former living areas of a 17th Street row house that has become a two-story restaurant with a genteel air, several paintings, pretty linens, and dimmed lights. (A second dining room is upstairs; the kitchen is in the English basement where the popular bar is also located.) By night, there is a soft and lustrous warmth that may be missing during its brighter lunchtime hours midweek. Because the tables are close, however, you may want to hold discreet conversations elsewhere, otherwise your neighbor will end up knowing all your business. And note: this place does get crowded. At a recent early-in-the-week dinner, Mercury Grill was serving to a sell-out crowd. Not bad, in the current DC economy.

But all Robert and I cared about was eating and reminiscing, and this is a great place for both. You may want to consider any daily special on hand, but the menu offers plenty to please. Appetizer selections are minimal, however, and of these, only two really stood out: fried calamari and sautéed spinach with garlic and olive oil. Of the others, the fruit and cheese plate, the mozzarella and tomatoes, and the roasted peppers, seem more suited to a different season, although patrons do rave about Floriana’s fine soups--a freshly-made pumpkin soup topped with crème fraîche was a recent standout I’ve had reported. Many restaurants offer fried calamari, but few get it right. Floriana does. In this ample serving, all pieces were hot and crispy, each with a delicate crust. And the spinach goes one better: Not just for Popeye, this dish makes the most of two ingredients that are natural partners--spinach and garlic--by starring gently sautéed young spinach leaves that are just wilted and bolstered by a big dose of garlic.

I've heard that Floriana produces outstanding made-from-scratch pasta dishes, and her menu selection includes ravioli with butternut squash, chicken cannelloni with cream sauce, and rigatoni Bolognese. But we lusted for meatier fare, turning to the pork loin with horseradish cream sauce and served with mashed potatoes and French-cut beans. A winner, this dish consists of three very thick slices of crusty roast pork alongside a big scoop of mashed potatoes. Maybe, indeed, as restaurants are observing, this is the year of comfort foods, and in my books, roast pork and mashed potatoes fit the bill. Even the horseradish sauce, often reserved for big-deal roast beef, proves to be a fitting and slightly sweet accent to the dish.

Our other choice--the veal chop with melted gorgonzola sauce--exemplifies another worthy pairing of ingredients. Almost everything, except maybe tiramisu, profits by cozying up to the smooth bite of gorgonzola, and veal is no exception. It's a toss up, frankly, to decide which of the two entrées were better. Gorgonzola lovers will choose this, for sure.

Dessert choices are not abundant, and you'll find among them sorbets, a cappuccino mousse, tiramisu, and a raspberry tart. We longed for something dense and chocolatey and ultra-rich, like a chocolate cheesecake, but that was not among them.

Considering all the restaurant competition in town, Floriana Mercury Grill is a busy place, holding its own. Maybe its appeal lies with its neighborhood location, but it's just as likely that folks appreciate sophisticated fare at affordable prices, with an appealing atmosphere that includes such nice touches as linen tablecloths and napkins on the attractive outdoor patio tables to boot.

Floriana Mercury Grill, 1602 17th St.; tel., 667-5937. Hours: Lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-2:30pm; Dinner nightly, 5:30-10:30pm & to 11pm, Fri & Sat. Dinner entrée prices: $13.95 to $19.50. All major credit cards.

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