The great restaurants make it look easy. You may not notice right away the lighting that dims on cue or the graceful trail of sauce on your plate, but the showmanship of a memorable meal stays with you.
There is a palpable commitment to making it look easy at Evolve, the sliver-thin fusion eatery now open in Adams Morgan. All the standards of trendy design are in place, from the white 1970s-style lounge chairs in the window to the sleek tree branches painted along one wall.
Sipping a glass of lemony Riesling while a soul song thumps in the background, you are pulled into a relaxed vibe at Evolve. The typical meal feels like a dinner party thrown by Jason Washington, a former advance man for D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, and the friends who helped him create the restaurant.
Forgive the pun, but if only the menu was as evolved as the ambience. The cuisine lacks a theme apart from diversity, spotlighting a hearty buffalo chicken sandwich as well as a refined but sadly dry Mediterranean calamari sauté.
The most predictable concept in the place is the Caesar salad — but reading the fine print, you find that the lettuce as well as the chicken comes grilled.
While Evolve promises “small plates,” and an expanded menu is in the works, only half of the dishes available so far cost less than $10. In fact, the kitchen’s strongest suit is its most expensive offering: the filet mignon arrives perfectly pink inside, the rich decadence of its brandy beurre blanc sauce balanced against a peppery bloom of spinach and fiery horseradish mashed potatoes.
The crab cake is hardly “colossal” as advertised, and has a tangy texture that suggests too much mayonnaise. But the crabmeat is impressively fresh, and the accompanying crunchy potato cake works magic with the brine of Kalamata olives and the creaminess of feta cheese.
Evolve has enough faith in its frites to attach its name to the dish, which tastes larger than its portion size thanks to a savory coat of peppercorns and rosemary.
Unfortunately, few of the remaining plates would be missed if Washington tossed them out while reorganizing the menu. The lamb burger appeared to have many fans, but its flat white bun, doused in cloying pink pomegranate aioli, did the poorly cooked meat no favors. The bacon-wrapped shrimp is equally overpowering, as the shellfish succumb to a syrupy Asian barbecue sauce and the candied ginger topping is lost on the sidelines.
Curiously, the dessert line-up makes a hard turn toward the classics and finds success there. The lemon sorbet is a cleansing way to end the night, and the triple-layer chocolate cake is appropriately intense without knocking your taste buds off balance.
Given the menu’s meandering exploration of almost every region and trend under the sun, one might long for a simple house cocktail that bridges the gap between safe and eclectic. But the drink menu is dominated by sweetness and tags infused vodka blends with names fit for a soap opera.
Thus a playful, fruity take on the mojito — fresh mint, lemon and cherries — becomes “Sinful Delight,” and a raspberry-spiked dessert martini becomes “When Chocolate Met Raspberry.” The wine list is shockingly small, featuring only three whites (two of them Rieslings) and two reds, although Washington plans to ultimately offer as many as 20 varietals and keep most in the under-$10 range.
For now, the Terrazas malbec is the undisputed champion grape for its complex notes of plum and berry. Avoid the cabernet and chardonnay, which are too predictable for their price tags.
Still, Washington and his fellow proprietors are working on new additions, and anyone who meets them can’t help but root for their project to succeed. With a few more months behind the bar and the stove, I suspect they will rise to the challenge of creating the hip but mellow gourmet retreat they long to give the neighborhood.
Speaking beneath the glow of the flat-screen TV mounted above Evolve’s bar, Washington likened his new career in food to his former one in politics. Just as Fenty focused on forging a personal connection with voters, he said, a good restaurant owner lives by the credo that “the customer is always right.”
“We want to be always changing, to never be stagnant,” Washington said. That kind of evolution will be challenging for Evolve, particularly as it works in the shadow of next-door neighbor Cashion’s Eat Place, but a few radical changes are what the spot needs to develop a following.
And besides, no one ever said it was easy. Just ask Rocky’s and Café Sofia, the last two restaurants to occupy Evolve’s prime real estate on Columbia Road.
Evolve is located at 1817 Columbia Road NW. (202) 486-3087