Walking into the Lahlou Restaurant Group’s newest addition, Dolce Vita, felt like walking into the center of four different cultures. I sat at the community table while I waited for my friend to arrive, looking around at the space designed by Med Lahlou. Every view felt like a different place: the community table’s white marble and bright blue chairs took me to Greece, painted brick murals took me to the Italian coast, the stone walls and deep lighting reminded me of my recent trip to Valencia, Spain, and the leather, dark wood, and bright paintings felt like a scene from a Moroccan market. Every guest in attendance, in whatever corner of the restaurant, was smiling.
Dolce Vita combines these four cultures in their food, too. In an ambitious fusion of flavors, chefs Juan “Nacho” Olivera and Elier Rodriguez mix and match spices from these four different countries to create flavor profiles you’ve likely never experienced.
“You realize everything is connected at one point,” Chef Olivera says. “You can see that these countries are different, but they have a lot of points in common.”
While the countries often use similar ingredients — saffron and cardamom and citrus — they’re each used in their own specific style. The chefs worked together to take a style of cooking from each country and infuse it into their different dishes. While eating the gnocchi Gallego, I felt like every time I chewed, a new flavor appeared.
“Each dish is like a stage,” Chef Olivera says. “The different characters matter: the presentation, the textures, the flavors — and like characters on stage, the different ingredients elevate each other.”
When my friend arrived, we were seated near the open kitchen, and we got to see a different sort of production: each of Dolce Vita’s team members moving expertly through each different part of the restaurant experience.
Our waiter suggested a few dishes, and we ended up trying the crab-stuffed piquillo, the gnocchi Gallego, the scallop crudo and the camarones al pil pil. Each seafood dish asked us to consider both its base and its influences. While the food might have originated in, say, Italy, the spices around it would be an unexpected addition from Morocco, Spain or Greece.
“Generally, the cuisine has a flavor profile,” Chef Olivera says. “You can’t tell if it’s Italian or Moroccan…it’s a new thing for everyone.”
In D.C., where we are lucky enough to have hundreds of different cuisines, which gives us a new experience every time we go out, it can be challenging for restaurants to add something completely new to the city’s portfolio. For both Olivera and Rodriguez, their expansive backgrounds in different parts of the world — Uruguay, Cuba, France and Italy — plus different parts of the U.S. (Miami, Atlanta and D.C.), helped them find ways to still surprise us. The key for Dolce Vita is the chefs intentionally meshing their different backgrounds. If they are not in sync, the dishes feel it.
“We have to work together in unexpected ways,” Chef Rodriguez says. “It’s like a good marriage.”
We were also recommended a few different desserts, and we decided to try the unexpected tiramisu and the Kunafa. Both were unforgettable. The tiramisu came in a chocolate sphere, and once broken open, showcased a perfect mousse and coffee-flavored sponge. The Kunafa was a beautiful mixture of sweet and citrus, soft and crunchy. And again, both desserts, though somewhat familiar to me, surprised me with the new experimental flavor profiles.
“We put effort into our desserts,” Chef Olivera says. “You have to finish spectacular with spectacular.”
A night out at Dolce Vita is one not to be missed. What we tried was only a sliver of what the menu offers. Chef Olivera personally recommends the lamb shank — a dish, he says, with which you can’t go wrong. He also loves the rice pudding, where they, again, added their mix of flavors to showcase each different country’s version of the classic dish.
For Chef Olivera, it’s all about patron experience.
“The dish comes to the table, and the people can’t believe what they’re trying,” he says.
That’s all he wants here — to witness the result of his experiment: pure delight in every aspect.
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