Our first visit to Eola the other night didn't have the most auspicious of beginnings. The hostess, hovering by the doorway, seemed surprised that we wanted to come inside. The look in her eye indicated that maybe she thought we were going to ask for directions to another restaurant. "Table for two? Sure! We're uh... a little slow tonight," she told us as she lead us inside the upscale P street restuarant. Inside, the bare-bones staff actually outnumbered the guests, attempting to not look too bored as we took our seat near the kitchen. We were one of only two tables, and halfway through the meal it became clear that the other two patrons were of some relation to one of the cooks.
The interior was nice, but simple and cozy. "Exactly like what you'd want your apartment to feel like," Angela noted, and she wasn't too far off. Eola's two-story interior is clearly renovated from an old town house. It feels fancy and elegant without ever crossing the threshold to being pretentious or uncomfortable. If only there had been a fireplace, we probably would've broken out a blanket and stuck around to watch Letterman.
Needless to say, in the empty restaurant the service was incredibly attentive. I've got to admit I was worried that the emptiness would be an indication of the food to come. We'd heard the food was ambitious, if a little hit-or-miss. Had the misses driven off the crowds? Or had the masses of people who should be dining out at 7:30 on a Thursday night just missed the memo? Something was clearly amiss.
For an amuse bouche (above, left) we were served a confit of pork heart with turnip puree, pecan, brandied cherry and celeriac leaf. The tiny bite played wonderfully in our mouths with a range of textures and left us lingering with the cherry's tart residuum. When the heaping basket of fresh bread (above, right) arrived, we promised ourselves we'd each have just one slice. A few slices later, we were both still marveling over the crispy crust, the slightly doughy insides and most notably the habit-forming, slightly sweet lemon-rosemary compound butter it was served with. Two swings and two hits so far. Our optimism was warming up.
Founder/Chef Daniel Singhofen opened the restaurant in the fall of '09 after a stint as executive sous chef at the K restaurant in Orlando. (I can't actually confirm this, but I'd venture a guess that the restaurant is named after Orlando's Lake Eola). His menu changes seasonally and favors local ingredients, a plethora of pork product and an interesting - if not eclectic - mix of fresh produce. On this visit, so many ingredients went into my mouth before I had any notion what they might be- were I to have tried counting them on my hands? I'd have run out of fingers. But we're talking about a vocabulary of berries and vegetables I had no idea even existed. The ambitious list of ingredients brought with it some bold flavors and a new little adventure to each dish.
That adventure began with the Crispy Pigs Ears - a dish I've never had the pleasure of tasting until now - served with a really flavorful herbed tartar sauce. The ears were far less intimidating than I'd imagined when reluctantly ordering them in the face of Angela's enthusiasm. Like anything breaded and fried and slathered with tartar, the pig ears were very agreeable.
Next came the Coddled Farm Egg served in a thick garlic broth with crispy porcini, ham, and bouillon powder. Upon revisiting the menu, I was surprised that the liquid my egg bathed in was a simple garlic broth. The thick, creamy sauce worked wonders against the fine arrangement of ham and egg. The porcini was a light, almost floral fungi that helped balance out the richness. Leftover bread became the utensil of choice to soak up the remaining egg and broth our forks may have missed.
The Summer Composition (above) was a photo-friendly assortment of June vegetables, berries, fig van cotto, and quail egg. With too many ingredients to list individually, the composition was presented like a beautiful still-life. It was like the Noah's Ark of produce, with no more than two of any one ingredient. Everything was so pretty that if there was a garnish, we ate that too. Angela may have downed a flower that wasn't meant to be eaten. But, the chef's commitment to local produce really shines here, as every taste was light, fresh and inspiring. Half the time, I had no idea what I was eating, but was challenged and rewarded with each new bite. If eating my veggies were always this exciting, I could see myself giving up meat for good...
Did I say give up meat for good? Uh, about that...next came my main course and the Hereford Beef (above) converted me back to my carnivorous ways. Cooked to a perfect medium-rare and full of rich, juicy flavors, the beef makes as good a case as any against vegetarianism. Normally I avoid beef entrees, often finding the conventions of meat and potatoes to be a little boring, but here the wide-range of palette-challenging flavors is very deliberate and delicious. Joining the beef is farro, pickled cherry, turkish cowhorn pepper, fennel, herb butter and saba. The farro provided a savory burst that I wasn't expecting, the cherry brought a certain sweetness and the cowhorn pepper almost caught me off gaurd with its spiciness. As the creamy herb butter melted into the beef, every part of my tongue was playfully teased with unique tastes.
Angela stuck with the pork theme choosing the Tammworth Pork (above) for her entree. Joining the smoked shoulder was a jowl confit, coco beans and kale. Often times when smokiness is advertised, the proper balance is missed, either with excess or under-flavoring. But in the case of this pork shoulder, Eola strikes a Goldilocks-like 'juuuust-right.' The coco beans were cooked to perfection, retaining the right amount of firmness, and the kale added a mellow bitterness that cut through the fattiness of the pork. We switched dishes for a bite or two, but quickly reached back for our original plates. Angela preferred her pork dish over the beef, and vice versa, but both dishes were unqualified hits.
And for dessert...? You got it. Pork again. The Bacon-Seared Pound Cake was too obvious to pass up. Served over a bacon Anglaise with berries, herbs and a house-made cucumber basil ice cream, the pound cake subtly introduced hints of bacon. Slightly more prominent were the bacon flavors in the anglaise, which made for a wonderful medium for dipping the pound cake, berries and occasional mint leaf. I thought the cucumber basil ice cream was interesting, but Angela was really into it. In fact, being not overly sweet, this made for the perfect 'Angela dessert' as she started tossing about terms like 'best dessert ever' before we were finished. I'm not ready to write off sweeter desserts, but the pound cake really hit the spot.
With our check came a nice little bonne bouche of dark chocolate shortbread. By this time, one more party of two had came in for a grand total of six patrons. I don't want to start any rumors, but if my math is correct, restaurants don't survive long when diners are this sparse. After tasting Eola's food, Angela and I were both completely baffled by the absence of business.
This is where you come in. Looking for a fancy, last minute option? Get yourself over to Eola! What're you waiting for? You could probably walk in any time and any night and get a table. Hurry up and fill those seats! This is exactly the kind of restaurant we need to encourage to stick around. Next time, Pizza Paridiso quotes you a two-hour wait, trying wandering across the street. Chances are likely Eola will be able to squeeze you in.