I walked into Dino’s Grotto and was immediately hit with a pungent stench. It smelled like a dusty old row house owned by an unkempt grandmother—rather unpleasant and a bit dingy.
The restaurant is two levels, the bottom being the grotto, the top being the restaurant, which is packed with cheap wooden tables and chairs arranged in rows, surrounded by ancient oil paintings hung on mustard yellow walls.
I felt kind of icky. Why did I bring my friends here? Dino’s in Cleveland Park was always so lovely—a neighborhood staple. It was a sad state of affairs when the trusty standby shut down. We were happy when we heard they were moving to greener pastures in Shaw, a more affordable, up-and-coming part of town.
Did Dino and his lovely wife just happen to relocate to a building that was a former pet shop? It certainly smelled like it.
My friends started to arrive to the brunch table, and I commented on the smell, but they weren’t as offended by it. They were more offended by the décor. Also, there was only one other table occupied in the restaurant, the glorious window seat, as we were relegated to the back of the narrow space.
Our server arrived in a flourish of kindness and hospitality, and our drinks and coffees came very quickly. The deal was $27 for bottomless mimosas or Bloody Marys, a starter, and an entrée—or pick two of the crafty brunch cocktails, a starter, and an entrée. Either way, it seemed like a great deal for the ‘hood.
The Bloody Marys were delicious, and they were happy to make virgin Marys for those of us heading to yoga after brunch. Made with heirloom tomato juice, the house-made Bloody mix is nothing but summer tomato essence, Dino’s silk road spices, Thai sriracha, and fresh lime juice. It was really delicious.
With our coffee and Marys in our noses, I began to forget about the smell. Honestly, after you’re there for a minute, you forget about it. It’s just one of those just-walked-into-a-friend’s-house smells, the kind that you never want your house to smell like.
We ordered a selection of appetizers to share, as they came with our brunch hangover specials, so we figured we would pass them around. The beet salad was the first to arrive, and packed so much flavor, we were in heaven. The salad consisted of charred beets, cucumbers, and braised chard, tossed in garlic and mint. On top, dollops of yogurt to set apart the taste.
The deep fried artichoke ‘alla giudia’ were absolutely gorgeous. From the Santa Monica farmers’ market, the artichokes were fried in olive oil and covered in silk road spices, lemon, black salt. They were like flowers, almost too pretty to eat, but were perfect once you broke into them.
The blue crab balls were tiny,deep fried pieces at the ends of toothpicks. They are made with 100 percent true blue Maryland crab, onion, celery, egg, and breadcrumbs. The bite-sized balls are served with bit of Thai Siracha aioli for dipping, with a bit of greens on the side.
The burrata, a staple from Dino’s in Cleveland Park, is air-freighted from Italy. It’s served with a sprig of basil popping out of the top, a rather strange presentation. In each corner of the plate, there are dips to mix the lovely cheese with, including roasted tomato, Kalamata olive puerr, and red pepper puree.
Midway through the meal, we were pretty impressed with the drinks and appetizers. Although the restaurant looks and smells like an old person’s home, the food is quite impeccable, if feebly presented. Looks may be deceiving, Dino.
The drinks were flowing; our server was lovely; on with the entrees! The vegetarian at the table ordered the ratatouille. It was a baked dish of goodness that was quickly polished off: grilled eggplant zucchini, bell pepper, fresh tomato essence, fontina, crucolo, and smoked mozzarella.
The steak and eggs was the best-presented dish. It was a thick hunk of steak, straight from Shenandoah Valley, served with eggs how you like them and some breakfast potatoes on the side. It came with an anchovy salsa verde, which was perfect. For $4 more you could bump the filet from a 6 ounce to an 8 ounce.
I ordered the Benedict, per usual. But this was a lovely Italian take on the dish. It was a San Benedetto, which sounds very romantic. Indeed, it came with pio tosini prosciutto, layered and folded on top of grilled ciabatta bread. The eggs were poached perfectly, and the orange and rosemary Hollandaise was delicious. It is definitely one of the better Benedicts I’ve had in Washington in the last year.
Overall, we were pretty damn happy—and getting a little tipsy on our bottomless drinks. In fact, one of our Bitches—who will not be named—even knocked over an entire glass of water, which splashed into the restaurant beyond our table. Thankfully, we were the only table in the entire place, and our server was more than happy to mop up our little accident. We’re sorry for the mess!
For dessert, we shared the French toast. Like many of the other dishes, it was not very pretty, but tasted amazing. The two slices of French toast came with Italian Nutella and mascarpone in the middle. Plus, there were big dollops of house rhubarb, old chandler strawberry and sage compote, whipped butter with maple, and red salt and cinnamon on top.
It was a lovely, decadent dessert with unique, remarkable flavors.
The Bitches say: B-. The décor and presentation is not great, but Dino knows his ingredients and whips up some pretty amazing dishes under the ancient ambiance.
1914 9th St. N.W.
Dino’s Grotto serves brunch on Saturdays and Sundays.