If you're after esoteric ethnic, kiddie casual, or one of those middle-of-the-road chains, Rockville is the place. But try to find a chef-owned restaurant with panache and promise and you'll feel lost. Amada Amante, a Modern American dining room by way of Italy, is by no means a perfect restaurant. But it is a flying leap from mere cooking into the world of serious cuisine.
The restaurant is perched in a new shopping-and-housing development where foundations are still being excavated. But inside, civilization prevails with a trendy bar (the TV's on the Food Network) and a high-ceilinged, ocher-walled dining room done up with polished wood, curved banquettes, and ripples of metal suspended from the ceiling that look like Aladdin's carpets gone to the Guggenheim. (They are there to diffuse light and sound.)
Since the restaurant's opening five months ago, the menu already has undergone some sea changes. Executive chef/owner Phil Burleson, who also owns the popular Agrodolce in Germantown, changes his menu seasonally, weekly, and sometimes daily. He's been known to show up in the bar to banter with patrons and catch what the Naked Chef is cooking on the tube. Antonio Lambardi, a Roman with a twinkle in his eye, goes by the title "wine director" but also keeps things running smoothly in the dining room. Get chatty and you might cadge a glass of wine from the tasting menu even if you haven't signed on for the six-course extravaganza.
Perhaps the best starter is seared foie gras with dabs of balsamic vinegar and savory "caramel" sauce spiked with black pepper. A few blueberries and pan-fried fruit brioche finish the tableau. Burleson has wisely kept embellishments away from the main attraction, the foie gras, allowing the diner to delight in dipping a morsel of the silky liver in the vinegar dribbles. Zuppa di pesce is all about the seafood--a bit of lemon-scented broth pools in the bottom of the bowl. If you're after luxury, four-cheese ravioli with morels, wilted baby spinach, and walnut cream will satisfy.
Wasabi-crusted Malpeque oysters with a salad of daikon, preserved ginger, and cilantro crunch nicely. And the plate of hams and salamis (including rosette de Lyon) with arugula is enough to make a meal of with a salad, bread, and a bottle from the thoughtful but pricey wine list. Less engaging is English-pea risotto, gummy and an odd shade of gray courtesy of black-truffle essence. Also in need of an overhaul: porcini-mushroom-and-spinach tart, the strong flavor of spinach overpowering the delicate mascarpone.
Star entrées include crisp-skinned duck confit with sautéed favas and garlic mashed potatoes, and beautifully cooked corvina, a white-fleshed Mediterranean fish (a.k.a. weakfish), with a zippy sauce of lime, cilantro, and wine. Veal tenderloin has been fine, though on one occasion a bit overdone. Its partners, porcini-mushroom risotto and garlicky broccolini, have been consistently wonderful.
Another meaty pleasure: rack of lamb with rosemary-flecked red-wine sauce, creamy polenta with the barest hint of garlic, and a fabulous cube of breaded and fried goat cheese. House-made fettucine works with roasted "Amish" half chicken. With a homey sage-cream sauce, it's reminiscent of Mom's noodle casseroles from the '70s. When the pasta shows up with other entrées--say, the corvina--it seems out of place.
All diners get a tidbit from the kitchen at the start of the meal--a nubbin of foie gras pâé, a lump of silky crab, or a tiny wedge of cheese. The most amusing dessert is the ramekin of Mexican-chocolate fondue with bits of fruit and cake to dip on the end of a small fondue fork. House-made chocolate-chip-mint ice cream and blood-orange sorbet are a marvelous finish, too.
9755 Traville Gateway Dr., Rockville; 301-217-5900. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner.
ATMOSPHERE: Elegant and romantic, modern without being austere.
FOOD: Modern American with Italian and French footnotes. Nice wines for a price.
PRICE: Lunch entrées, $8 to $13. Dinner entrées, $22 to $26. Dinner for two: $95, plus alcohol.
VALUE: Expensive but worth it for a special occasion.