Carla Meyer

Dining review: Capital Dime struggles to make sense

When Capital Dime opened last July, pushing the idea that it would serve high-caliber farm-to-fork fare at eye-popping prices, the concept got a lot of attention, and the name of this potentially high-profile eatery made a lot of sense.

Bolstering the credibility of this $10-a-plate idea was one of Capital Dime’s founding partners, chef Noah Zonca, who rose to prominence at The Kitchen, the prix-fixe, performance-style restaurant where customers pay $135 each for superb food and more than a few chef one-liners. Zonca, who was so adept with his scripted performance there, insisted he could pull off the Dime’s pricing because of his longstanding relationships with purveyors. The presumption was easy to make – he would source quality local product and hammer out great deals.

This restaurant, nestled in the heart of midtown on L Street, initially made a big splash. Journalists and bloggers flocked to the preview tasting. Much of the buzz stemmed from the notion that a hot-shot chef had stepped away from the most expensive restaurant in town to run his own show.

At the start, Capital Dime’s food showed signs of upscale finesse at downscale prices, but it was only a matter of weeks before the prices started inching upward. If many of the items were $10, why not throw in a few that are $12 and $15?

As the months went by, the play on the word “dime” was all but lost. The last time I ate there, days before Zonca’s unexpected exit in February to focus on a catering business, there were entrees such as the lamb and spaetzle dish listed at $30 – Mulvaney’s and Ella territory – and the $10 items were not emphasized as much. The food was hit or miss – a superb watermelon salad or solid fish tacos one night, an overly sauced steak frites or bland pastrami sliders the next.

While Zonca played the role of bombastic showman to perfection at The Kitchen, inspiring laughs between bites of beautiful, high-caliber food, Capital Dime proved a different stage. At the Dime, he was doing more hosting than cooking. If he was in the kitchen, he told us, that meant there was a problem. His outsized personality struggled to find its fit at the new venue, and his interaction with guests, which worked so well at The Kitchen, now seemed like more of a distraction.

He once brought us the same incorrect beer twice. The first time, he poured while regaling us with super-sized tales, never noticing he had just created 6-plus inches of foam in the glass. When I ordered the lamb, he told me he wasn’t happy with the dish with spaetzle and would I prefer it with farro? It was all part of a nonstop monologue that came off as more manic than helpful. When I ordered a glass of Bordeaux, he spent five minutes telling us how he knew the winemaker. When we ordered the lemon tart he told us, yes, that the lemons were from his own yard. The water? Filtered it himself. The wine list? He launched into a story about how it was created even though it was clear we were trying to have our own conversation.

It wasn’t long before we gave each other wide-eyed, knowing looks whenever Zonca bounded over to our table. While the food was decent, it was no longer a bargain, and the Zonca experience had simply dwarfed everything else.

But Zonca is out and Capital Dime continues with recently hired chef Stan Moore. He played a prominent supporting role at The Kitchen as sous chef, then bounced around from kitchen to kitchen over the past 18 months, with stints at Enotria, Taste in Plymouth and Tuli Bistro shortly before it closed in February.

Moore has a solid reputation among his fellow chefs, and has slimmed down the scope of the Dime’s menu. Gone are the more expensive – and ambitious – lamb and spaetzle, steak and salmon entrees, replaced by far simpler bar food in the $10 to $15 range. The wine and beer selections are also more compact.

But we began to wonder if Moore was as attentive as he needed to be, as we encountered many inconsistencies and outright cooking miscues – overdressed salads, under-seasoned chicken and improperly cooked waffles. Over three recent visits, the food ranged from mediocre to disappointing.

Recently, the menu contained a section called “Dime dinners” priced in the low $20 range. We ordered the $24 steak dinner and, lo and behold, were served a dish that looked very much like the description for the $13 steak sandwich. Why would they do two versions of steak on triangles of toast? Because they don’t. We were charged $24 for the $13 steak sandwich. That suggests the server had no idea what he was looking at – or wasn’t looking at all when he delivered the order. We would assume the steak dinner was larger. This steak was rather ordinary, resting atop bland toasted sandwich bread that did nothing to make the dish special.

That night, the fried chicken and waffles ($15), a potentially funky and delicious take on a Southern diner classic, featured tasteless, cold-in-the-middle chicken and a waffle that looked and ate like cardboard. By comparison, the fried chicken we had a day later at Blackbird nine blocks down the grid was superior in every way and cost $3 more for twice as much chicken.

The poutine – yes, everyone’s doing a version of French fries, gravy and cheese these day – was one of the worst dishes I can remember eating. The fries were bland. The gravy was lukewarm. The mozzarella was cold, and so was the braised veal. The whole thing was awash in soggy saltiness. As luck would have it, I had just eaten a tremendous poutine with duck at Carpe Vino in Auburn, and Capital Dime’s was nowhere close. Is this a Dime dish? No, it’s $15.

Because the fried chicken and poutine were both miscues the first go-round, I felt obligated, given Moore’s reputation, to order them again during my next visit. Maybe it was simply an off night in the kitchen. The chicken the next time was slightly more flavorful, but the waffles remained overcooked and dense, rather than crisp and light. The poutine was identical.

The $13 “Damn good cheeseburger” was actually a below-average cheeseburger, starting with the blood-red juice that, somewhere along the way, proceeded to saturate the bottom of the bun. A juicy burger is a great thing. A burger that’s not allowed to rest properly can wind up being more messy than juicy.

During one visit, our Dime salads – listed under the heading “Rabbit Food” on the menu – both far too much dressing, something that was obvious with a glance. The crab Louie is a potential winner, made with butterleaf lettuce rather than iceberg, cherry tomatoes, boiled egg and asparagus, but was dripping in avocado vinaigrette. The Caesar was also drenched in a dressing that bore little resemblance to a classic Caesar, with nary a hint of garlic or anchovies. We persisted and ordered the crab Louie a second time days later. The dressing was more restrained, but neither the Dungeness crab nor the shrimp was fresh.

Then there were the so-called Dime dishes, the $10 plates that are the apparent wheelhouse of this concept. Thing is, they’re not a bargain. In fact, some of them should be more like $6. The $10 mac ’n’ cheese, while it had nice cubes of tasty bacon, featured a melted white cheese that was so cloying and dry it was hard to swallow. The macaroni had clearly been reheated rather than cooked to order, and it had a stiff, dry texture.

Duck nuggets? We liked the sound of them and anticipated that tasty, rich duck meat with something crunchy and tasty. Didn’t work out. The deep-fried coating was all we could taste – sort of generic bar food note on the palate – and there was nothing about the nuggets that distinguished them as duck. The creamed spinach and artichoke dip with ho-hum sandwich-bread toast was simply not worth $10.

Is there a good Dime dish that’s actually worth $10? Yes, there is. It’s the mussels with chorizo, though we’re informed on the menu the chorizo is vegetarian. Why do a vegetarian chorizo – a.k.a. faux meat – on a dish that’s not vegetarian? Someone is over-thinking things. Still, it’s a tasty snack or light meal.

The craft cocktails are another potential feature here, but like the food, the execution is uneven. The Juan Valdez, a cocktail featuring rum, chili and coffee bean Campari, orange juice and lime juice, was a bomb of bitterness. The White Linen, made with Martine Miller gin, St. Germain, English cucumber and lemon juice, was a well-balanced and bright drink.

As for dessert, the Dime doesn’t offer any. Zonca initially didn’t want to serve dessert because there were so many dessert specialty places nearby, though he changed his mind, possibly after realizing he was encouraging patrons to leave his restaurant and spend their money elsewhere. At the moment, they’re back to not serving dessert. It’s one of the many tweaks, changes and stutter-steps that seem to define Capital Dime’s first nine months.

What does the future hold? Situated as Capital Dime is on a bustling block in the heart of midtown, where quality restaurants abound within a five-minute walk, it’s impossible to imagine this one will be able to distinguish itself if it continues down this path.

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