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Merkado Kitchen, 1443 P St., N.W. 20005, (202) 299-0018, www.merkadodc.com Ordinarily, it is considered good manners for restaurant critics to wait six to eight weeks after a new eatery debuts before reviewing it. That way, the kitchen has time to work out the inevitable kinks that emerge as it begins serving customers. But, ordinarily, D.C. restaurants do not open to standing-room-only crowds. The new Merkado Kitchen, located on the block of P Street that is home to the District’s busiest Whole Foods Market, seems to be an exception. In its second week of business, we found the newest restaurant from the owners of Grillfish and Logan Tavern running more than an hour wait on Saturday night and a respectable 20-minute wait on a Monday evening. And since D.C. diners are clearly eager to try Merkado’s Asian-Latin themed menu, we figured why wait. Part of Merkado’s instant appeal is that it has landed in a hungry neighborhood. The area between Dupont and Logan circles (the neighborhood where we happen to reside) has become an address of choice for the double-income, no-kids crowd in recent years, but remained painfully bereft of upscale eateries. Merkado � with its industrial chic d�cor, inventive cuisine, and attractive bar space � is certainly a welcome addition. The restaurant’s menu � divided broadly into small plates, big plates, and bowls � combines flavors from south of the border and Southeast Asia. A meal at Merkado might start, for instance, with shrimp tempura or a Cuban pork quesadilla and move on to a main course of paella or udon noodle soup. Appetizers range in price from about $7 to $9. A tempura fried chile relleno stuffed with creamy goat cheese was so delicately battered it actually tasted like a vegetable instead of a grease bomb. In one of the kitchen’s more unconventional starters, a bundle of tender grilled calamari stuffed with shrimp and crab is bathed in a sweet coconut curry. It’s a nice invention, though the curry � and to be frank, practically everything on Merkado’s menu � screams for a serious dash of spice and seasoning. Certainly, a pork shank served on a bed of mashed potatoes and plaintains would have benefited from an encounter with the spice rack. It wasn’t bad, just boring. And a bowl of mussels billed as spicy demanded a generous dose of hot sauce before it came alive. Even without the extra kick, the $15 dish is a standout on Merkado’s menu. More than a dozen mussels share space with doughy udon noodles, seaweed, lobster broth, and crisp bok choy for a satisfying meal that is at once light and savory. One dish that will have you asking for more water is the calamari “linguine.” The entree features pastalike strands of squid, coconut rice, and Asian vegetables in a downright spicy seafood broth. While Merkado’s Latin-Asian fusion concept is daring, it does not always work upon execution. A plate of wonton skin nachos topped with ground beef, manchego cheese, and wasabi cream is just plain muddled. The wonton crisps are too big to eat with fingers and too brittle to cut with a knife. Plus, the manchego cheese crumbled and wouldn’t stick to the chips. Some dishes also have an assembly-line feel. The same bland mixture of crabmeat and shrimp is used to form seafood cakes, to stuff calamari, and to fill spring rolls. With entrees averaging around $18, it seems fair to expect a little more craftsmanship in the kitchen. The most pleasant surprise of Merkado is its service. In three visits, our waiters were uniformly friendly, efficient, and readily answered questions about unfamiliar ingredients like Sriracha � an Asian chili paste � and xuxu � a fruit native to Mexico and Central America. And when we ordered a glass of wine from Thailand on one server’s recommendation and didn’t care for it, he was happy to exchange it for another. The restaurant’s design is also inviting, with a large window opening on to a bustling kitchen. Exposed air ducts and concrete walls give the dining room a modern feel, similar to the nearby Logan Tavern. But Merkado’s west wall is utterly unique � dominated by renditions of eight giant smiling faces. Perhaps the artistic touch is meant to be avant-garde. Or perhaps the multiethnic faces are meant to reflect the character of the neighborhood. Perhaps they just signal that the owners want their guests to leave smiling. It’s still early, but they seem to be on the right track. � Vanessa Blum is a senior reporter at Legal Times. Phillip Dub� is an attorney at D.C.’s Covington & Burling.

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