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Reservations Recommended

Revisiting the Past = Floriana

Admittedly, it’s been nine years since a friend and I settled into comfortable chairs in Floriana Mercury Grill — now just known as Floriana — on Dupont Circle’s 17th Street corridor. In fact, I logged into my first dinner there in 1996 — then the predecessor establishment known as Mercury Grill, reporting then to The InTowner that the then-chef had an odd and perhaps deliberately vague cooking style. Service was slow and the menu paired Southwestern dishes, such as a stuffed tortilla, with fried calamari — not a well-thought-out combination of flavors and textures.

A second meal five years later, in late 2001, and with the same friend turned up a vast menu improvement. And no wonder: the by then new owner, Floriana herself, had taken up the kitchen helm and was overseeing meal preparation. Yes, fried calamari still appeared as an appetizer choice, but the entrées emerged as gloriously delicious, including a memorable veal chop with a Gorgonzola sauce and three thick pork chops on mashed potatoes and made dazzling with a horseradish sauce garnish.

Well, today’s Floriana has morphed even further: Floriana has turned the restaurant over to her son, who has had the presence of mind to hire an amazing Brazilian chef, Ghuilherme Barreto, who can perform wonders in the kitchen. Passionate about his craft, Barreto must think, breathe, and live cooking. If you wonder how this can be, simply make a dinner reservation and order his short ribs, a dish he says is one of his signature offerings. Braised and boneless, the ribs simply shred apart in a deeply rich, mushroom- and wine-enhanced braising liquid that could become this year’s addiction of choice.

But that’s only the beginning of the evening’s delights. First, check the specials menu, and be sure to ask the waiter about what’s really, really hot for the day. A recent visit turned up an appetizer wedge salad garnished with crispy pork belly and a single quail egg. Could that have been bested by the muqueca de pesce (a fish stew of coconut milk), which had sadly run out, or a tuna sashimi with Parmigiano-Reggiano and truffle salt? As for entrées, choices included a goat Bolognese competing with a duck ropa vieja served with Arborio rice, black beans, and fried plantains. It seems a deliberate tease, this specials selection. Because . . .

The regular menu holds its own temptations. First and foremost are the boneless short ribs, perhaps one of my favorite dishes in the entire city. Sure, plenty of restaurants offer short ribs, but none can compare to this melding of beef, wild mushrooms, beer, assorted herbs and spices, several kinds of vegetables that braise down to nothing but flavor, and that over-the-top garnish, a Gorgonzola sauce, also amplified by wild mushrooms.

Not to be outdone, of course, other selections merit a second glance, unless you bring along several friends for a communal tasting meal. How about lobster and wild mushroom risotto or a zuppa di pesce served with linguine? (All pasta, by the way, is made fresh daily in-house.) Or you can settle for a bowl of mussels — paired with clams for one offering or with shrimp and a classic shrimp scampi sauce for another — or just make a meal from the appetizers. Once again, fried calamari make the list, but you can also order a bacon-wrapped filet of beef, scallop, and shrimp with a trio of sauces or for simpler fare, Tuscan toast, which is warmed Parmesan cheese-garlic bread. But you will also get a bread basket of fresh crusty and rustic bread, ideal for dunking.

Alas, the dessert selections are not as daring as the rest of the menu: besides a tiramisu, profiteroles, and an ice cream bomba, the dessert that might keep pace with the chef’s wild imagination is a Guinness root beer float. Hmmm . . .

Floriana itself retains its grace and elegance with wooden floors, burgundy-red walls, and white trim; cold nights call for sitting next to the faux fireplace for a certain coziness. In good (as in warm) weather, the front patio offers alfresco dining. All in all, Floriana is a rediscovered delight. And any time I crave real comfort food with a certain level of calories, I’ll stop in for those short ribs. Again and again.<ENDMARK>

Floriana | 1607 17th St., NW; (202)-667-5937. Dinner nightly, 5-11pm. Entrée price range: $15-$27.

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Click here to visit her website.