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Zola, 800 F St., N.W., (202) 654-0999 For a restaurant designed around the theme of espionage and intrigue, Zola is not off to a very covert start. Its bar and dining room have been perpetually packed since opening adjacent to D.C.’s International Spy Museum last August. To be sure, there are a lot of things to love about Zola: its airy bar with floor to ceiling windows and a creative menu of potent, rainbow-tinted cocktails; a reasonably priced lunch menu that offers a straightforward ham-and-cheese sandwich alongside the usual crab cakes and New York strip; and a wine list that is both innovative and unpretentious. Unfortunately, both service and quality at Zola can be spotty, leaving the impression that more thought has gone into creating a mood than fine tuning the menu. Chef Frank Morales’ eclectic fare offers something for everyone — from grilled lamb loin with sausage to a nostalgic lobster roll sandwich. A spicy tuna tartar under a veil of lemony cream is a bright spot on the starter menu at both lunch and dinner. Another worthy stop is Zola’s corn and mussel chowder. Accented with applewood-smoked bacon and served over corn flan, the dish strikes a harmonious blend of sweet and smoky notes. Crisp mushroom wontons make a good appetizer for sharing, although the ho-hum mango-and-roasted-pepper salsa would benefit from a bit more zing. Lunch entrees range from $10 to $21. For $12, try the ahi tuna sandwich, a moist tuna steak tucked into thick ciabatta bread with roasted tomatoes and a zesty olive dressing. A standard grilled salmon plate complemented by tender broccolini, crisp potato straws, and a light cream sauce teases tastebuds with a range of succulent, crunchy textures. A surprise favorite was the portobello mushroom polenta stack featuring roasted mushroom slices, fontina cheese, and eggplant tapenade tenderly sandwiched between two disks of fluffy polenta. While many restaurants offer a half-hearted vegetarian entrée, Zola demonstrates that a meat-free dish can be rich and satisfying. At dinner, entrees start at $14. A generous plate of pan-seared lobster and Swiss chard ravioli bathed in tangy tomato broth is at once delicate and flavorful. Instead of using doughy Italian pasta for the ravioli, the chef recruits Asian gyoza wrappers for a lighter texture. The lamb dish takes its inspiration from the Middle East, combining spicy lamb sausage, sliced lamb loin, and toasted pita. Zola’s wide-ranging wine list boasts 20-odd wines by the glass, an impressive selection of half bottles, daily flights of whites and reds, and reasonable prices. Tasting notes for nearly 50 wines help make its cellar accessible to even novice wine drinkers. Zola calls its blend of local and international flavors “straightforward American cuisine,” but the restaurant suffers from tackling too many styles. Several dishes that sound promising fizzle on delivery. A grilled romaine salad, for instance, is exposed as a lackluster plate of limp lettuce drizzled in blue cheese dressing, and the cheddar and pimiento fondue has all the pizzazz of ballpark nacho cheese. A tasteless veal and wild mushroom meatloaf arrives wrapped in bacon and still manages to bore the palate. The same inconsistency plagues service. Zola’s management obviously cares about small touches such as offering black napkins to patrons in dark pants so they won’t be left with a dusting of white lint. Yet on a Friday night visit, poor pacing was a distraction. Our appetizers appeared less than two minutes after we placed our order and were half-eaten before our drinks arrived. Offering a side of mashed potatoes to diners must be part of server training at Zola. On our first visit, we yielded to temptation, only to find the potatoes a bland disappointment. Mashed potatoes may be an easy sell, but servers would score more points by honing in on one of Zola’s stronger dishes. Fortunately, there are many. Despite its rough spots, Zola is an exciting addition to the MCI Center neighborhood. Vanessa Blum is a reporter at Legal Times and Phillip Dubé is an attorney at D.C.’s Covington & Burling.

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