It took four visits to L Wine Lounge & Urban Kitchen for me to realize why I was so flummoxed by my experiences at this stylish spot. I have never been to a restaurant where the ambiance and the food delivered such different messages. My conclusion? L Wine Lounge & Urban Kitchen has a split personality.
Located on hip L Street in midtown, the two-story space has clean, sharp lines and sparse, elegant dcor. Downstairs, there’s a bar with ultramodern (and ultrauncomfortable) bar stools, a long table for big groups and a sleek pea-green sofa that offers visual relief from the space’s monochromatic starkness. A staircase leads upstairs to a similarly modern, minimalist dining room. Staffers are dressed to the nines, and the place exudes fabulousness.
And then there is the food. Robust, casual, welcoming and earthy, this is feel-good, rustic fare&emdash;the culinary equivalent of a warm, comforting hug on a cold, drizzly day. You won’t find angular, overwrought dishes here: no stacked towers of vegetables or zigzaggy drizzles of sauce on the plate. Chef Ame Harrington, an advocate of small, local farmers, offers up earnest, sturdy bistro food.
Take, for example, her croque madame, a hearty sandwich made with warm ham, melted GruyÃ¨re and tangy stone-ground mustard, topped with a poached egg and a velvety, GruyÃ¨re-based white sauce. Served with cornichons and (if you choose) a plate of cracklingly hot pommes frites, this is a stick-to-your-ribs meal that you could easily find in a Parisian cafe. The same could be said for the plump diver scallops, blisteringly seared but with a tender-as-silk interior, which arrive on a bed of fragrant heirloom French beans bathed in a citrusy blood-orange beurre blanc. And Harrington’s comforting cassoulet features tiny French lentils, chunks of spicy chorizo, duck leg confit and a toasty crust of breadcrumbs.
Other nurturing dishes I sampled included the pillowy, lush gnudi, which were like ricotta gnocchi. Tossed with chanterelle mushrooms and roasted walnuts and drenched in butter, they were richly satisfying. The grilled prawns, one of my favorite entres, arrived on a bed of ravishing escalavida, Harrington’s rendition of ratatouille, made with sweetly caramelized onions, whisper-thin slices of fennel, diced eggplant and strands of roasted bell pepper. I could have foregone the prawns entirely and eaten the vegetable stew by itself.
Vegetables shine here. I devoured a warm spinach salad, tossed with sauted shallots, hedgehog mushrooms and salty little bacon bits. The cauliflower and Yukon Gold potato soup was scrumptious, and oven-roasted cauliflower came on a bed of white bean pure, accompanied by a zesty romesco sauce. But all these dishes, hearty and lusty, seemed disconcertingly at odds with the restrained, austere environment in which they were served.
I wasn’t impressed with the crusty, feather-light brandade croquettes, which were perplexingly flavorless and served with a preserved-lemon aioli whose citrus component was difficult to detect. Braised short ribs were so fatty, I finally gave up trying to eat them and turned my attention to the accompanying parsnip pure, creamy and undeniably bistro-worthy. Calamari was disappointingly tepid and rubbery, though served with a spicy and likable aioli.
When you arrive, you’re served bread with a saucer of locally produced (and excellent) Apollo olive oil and a surprising mixture of chopped toasted hazelnuts, sesame seeds, cumin and sea salt that is so darned addictive, it would be effortless to fill yourself up on it. But don’t. Instead, save room for dessert: There are some great items on the pastry list, including a dense brown-butter cheesecake with a sturdy graham cracker crust and three tiny dark-chocolate cakes, served warm with scoops of vibrant cinnamon gelato. I also admired pastry chef Toni Purdy’s homey&emdash;and, yes, rustic&emdash;pear upside-down gingerbread.
I was shocked to find the dining room virtually empty on all my visits. I suspect that the food has been obscured by the ambiance. How could anyone divine that such lovely, earthy, robust food comes out of the kitchen of this urbane wine lounge?
If you happen to find yourself in a capricious mood, simultaneously craving a nourishing, earnest meal and a glitteringly cosmopolitan night on the town, this might be the place for you.
Trendspotting: This is a great spot to channel your inner fashionista
Eat it: There’s a delectable, super-juicy hamburger on the menu
No whining: From Contra Costa County Old Vine Zinfandel to German Riesling, the wine-by-the-glass list offers many intriguing options
L Wine Lounge & Urban Kitchen: 1801 L St., Sacramento; (916) 443-6970; lwinelounge.com
Hours: Tuesdayâ€“Wednesday 4â€“10 p.m., Thursdayâ€“Friday 4 p.m.â€“midnight, Saturday 3 p.m.â€“midnight; Saturdayâ€“Sunday brunch 9 a.m.â€“3 p.m.; bar open Tuesdayâ€“Saturday until 2 a.m.; closed Monday