No Union Label
LOCAL 16
[from May 2003 issue]


Two meals and some days later, I am still not convinced that Local 16 merits more than a visit or two--despite the casual twenty-something crowd, its gilded décor and upstairs swank, the rooftop dining, and its energetic waitstaff. Problem is, another part of the fine-dining equation is missing: kitchen consistency, because one meal was great, but another was dismal, and for diehard foodies, that's critical.

That said, my friend delighted in the steamed mussels appetizer, a steaming bowlful of mollusks made pungent by its generous portion of garlic, wine, and cubed fennel and best served with plenty of bread for soaking up the broth. Even the grilled squid were commendable, but the French onion soup rankled, lacking the oniony punch of the classic version. Too much wine? Not enough salt? That was unclear.

An earlier dinner starred entrées of the grilled steak sandwich and an oyster Po' Boy, both unremarkable, and the latter--more roll than oysters--has obviously been deleted from the menu. Far better entrée choices were the grilled chicken, completely boned and seasoned with coarse-grained mustard forced under the skin. Well-prepared and fortified with tarragon, the chicken was also accompanied by very tender Brussels sprouts--a rare state for typically overly tough sprouts-and delicious mashed potatoes. The result: modern American comfort food, but with a slightly offbeat spin.

Evidently the kitchen has its chicken cooking down pat, for the generous mound of jerk chicken pasta was another thumbs up for the evening. For this winner, the chef tossed penne with mushrooms and a cream sauce laden with spices and grated Parmesan cheese. Indeed, the portion was too much for one person--at least one with a moderate appetite--and the dish made for great leftovers.

Desserts, all priced at $5, were not gastronomic triumphs, though the chef dreamed up an interesting presentation of panna cotta, an Italian custard-like pudding that must be this kitchen's trademark. Spooned into a charming coffee cup detailed with drawings of a string ensemble, the panna cotta tasted much like firmed-up sour cream. Other choices fall more into the comfort food category--milk and cookies for one, a warm chocolate brownie with vanilla gelato for another, and cheesecake for a third. Perhaps the point of Local 16 is not so much the food as the scene. Definitely a hip and trendy neighborhood hangout, Local 16 has a sophisticated attitude underscored by its dark, sexy look. Heavy woods, gilt mirrors, decorative overhead light fixtures, and church pew benches all contrive to give this place the air of "right now" action. That's great for socializing, but don't head there expecting over-the-top food. And, if you have the option, ask for seating at the window-side table. That puts you just enough out of the way so that you can hear friends talk and also avoid the crush of waitstaff and patrons tripping over each other.

Local 16, 1602 U St., NW; tel., 265-2828 (after 5 pm). Dinner nightly, starting at 5:30 p.m.. Entrées: $11-$22. Major credit cards.


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