The art of underselling
PHOTOGRAPH BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.
Cold pork. Gnocchi. Coleslaw. Fried potatoes. The way Meliora names its dishes, one could confuse them with the titles of the paintings of the last series of still lifes of a laconic artist. Or, perhaps a little closer to the truth, co-owner and executive chef Drew Adams was too deep down the rabbit hole, too completely obsessed with the pursuit of the sublime, that he simply couldn’t be bothered. to come up with something more descriptive than the working title of each dish. By the time a diner digs into one of the restaurant’s plates, both claims seem plausible.
Hillview’s new restaurant, co-owned by transplanted Washington DC chef Adams and his longtime friend/associate Bruce Pike, brings an extraordinary level of artistry to the flavor profile and presentation of their New American tapas-style menu, a tweezers approach. a perfection as playfully obscured by the unpretentious verbiage of the menu as by the understated decor. Inside, a simple palette of dark blue, minimalist fixtures, with accent color here and there or framed artwork of fish, serve as a cozy yet understated backdrop to an ambitious body of work.
This body of work – and an introduction to a recurring theme of using local produce – could start with something from their cold selections like ricotta with seasonal vegetables. Vegetables come from a cross-section of farms in the region and in the spring can include wild carrots, radishes, purple and yellow cauliflower, edible flowers and Romanesco, the latter striking with its fractals. At the center of it all, a bowl of whipped ricotta cheese heavily seasoned with dill. The vegetables are cut in half or quarters, with a light drizzle of white balsamic vinegar and a pinch of salt. Plated with an eye for composition and color, it’s a simple, shareable appetizer that celebrates organic farming as much as the culinary arts.
The cold pork impresses with a balance of sweet, salty and a touch of spice in the form of chilli oil. Based on a Sichuan dish, it consists of ground pork cooked in soy sauce, fish and sesame. Served with leaves of leafy romaine lettuce from the Homestead Hydroponic Farm, these cold pork lettuce wraps are best enjoyed with a drizzle of spicy chili oil, which cuts through the pork with just the right amount of heat. The dish develops like a plate to share a bit like the vegetable platter. A beet salad further enhances the visual panache of the menu. Listed in the “warm” half of the menu, it comes with a creamy whipped goat cheese base, as well as grilled avocado and Italian wine. Characteristically earthy and surprisingly dense, the dish’s ‘wow’ moment comes from its presentation, which sees the whole plate sculpted into something of an abstract homage to the color purple.
For co-owner Bruce Pike, who runs the front desk, dishes like the veggie platter, cold pork or beet salad make it easier to get positive reviews. But as the menu delves into the most ambitious dishes, those that showcase Adams’ impressive experience in the DC-area’s prestigious kitchens, including three Michelin-starred restaurants, diners might wonder. find yourself lost in a trance of pure culinary pleasure. And the path to that pleasure is paved with Meliora carbonara. Historically made as a peasant food, a traditional carbonara maximizes the calorie-to-cost ratio with large amounts of cheese, egg, and pork fat. What Meliora has done with their version of the dish is elevate it with rarefied ingredients, namely duck eggs. Slightly larger than chicken eggs, duck eggs also contain slightly more fat and a more intense and creamy texture. This means that a smaller serving of duck eggs contains more eggs in less space. Finished with shavings of dried duck egg, Chef Adams also smokes the dish’s guanciale in house for 24 hours, which combines with a pinch of black pepper to turn this decidedly un-peasant concoction into something more. Rich, smoky, peppery, bursting with umami, carbonara induces the kind of closed-eyes experience reserved for moments of bliss.
Another of Chef Adams’ masterpieces—one that lasted 14 years according to Adams—is the scallop crudo. The dish centers on thin slices of raw scallops garnished with a little chives and basil, including the little basil flowers. The final flourish includes a pour of hot cream of scallops. When it comes to flavor profile, the little dish expresses quite strongly an allusion to the rich chowders of Adams and Pike’s Mid-Atlantic roots, with a powerful first wave of brine accentuating a steady tide of creaminess.
The drink menu, which rotates as often as the food, features an eclectic assortment of craft cocktails from the imagination of Topher Nalefski, who mixology enthusiasts may know well from his successful run at the State Street Eating House and Cocktails. . If Nalefski hasn’t already strayed too far from the time traveler’s wife, his interpretation of a negroni, a thirsty diner might appreciate the pinch of black pepper, the splash of sparkling water and the sprig of mint. Less bitter than a traditional negroni, the cocktail nevertheless deserves a moderate tasting pace.
One of the great things about a tapas-style menu is that no dish, especially if shared, will leave a dinner party full to the brim. That leaves just enough room for dessert, which at Meliora means the food is starting to look more and more like works of art. A piping plate of frozen white polenta with delicate disks of vanilla meringue between them is drizzled with strawberry syrup, then topped with drops of buttermilk. The buttermilk stays separate from the syrup, giving the dessert its mottled appearance. More importantly, the immense amount of sweetness never overpowers what is a broad and balanced cornucopia of flavors.
Those lucky enough to be invited to the custom wood slab counter that is the chef’s table overlooking the kitchen will almost feel like they have entered the studio of a prolific artist. As Chef Adams roams his kitchen, he ponders a saucepan here, deliberates over a pot there, grabs his tweezers and toils over a trim like a painter might agonize over the way light reflects off the eye of his subject. In Meliora’s seemingly simple dishes, we find plenty of imagination and technique, a mastery of the tried and true with an eye for novelty and daring. Indeed, we find great artistic skill, none more refined than the art of underselling.