The first thing you notice about Unum is that there’s not a whole lot of it. Just inside the entrance of this skinny slice of M Street (formerly home to Mendocino Grille), a snug bar area competes for space with a hostess stand, where co-owner Laura Schiller, a slight woman with long brown curls, greets guests with a smile. In the windowless dining room, soft yellow lighting keep things cheerful despite the tight quarters. For maximum intimacy, guests can reserve a table inside “the alcove,” a banquette-lined recess that rivals some of the coziest settings in town.
Chef Phillip Blane, Schiller’s husband and an alum of Equinox restaurant, has created a menu on scale with the space: There are just eight “smaller” plates and eight “larger” ones, plus a brief list of charcuterie and cheese options. Unum encourages sharing—several dishes are available by the half order—but servers usually ask what should come out when, a smart policy often neglected in small-plates spots.
Among the starters is an excellent golden-fried soft-shell crab over a tangy-sweet chutney of apricot, ginger, and green tomato. The best of the salads features raw, pickled, and roasted beets and citrusy goat cheese drizzled with a vanilla-laced balsamic vinaigrette. Caesar salad, served with a lovely little artichoke-Parmesan custard, is also very good, and light eaters will appreciate the Unum Salad, with its baby lettuces, Bartlett and Asian pears, and vibrant sherry vinaigrette. One less successful small dish: cold corn soup. Blane cleverly tops it with wasabi popcorn for spice and crunch, but an overdose of vanilla undoes the dish.
Herbs pop up everywhere. Meals begin with a bread basket accompanied by sage-studded butter and a cilantro-heavy chimichurri. Perfect pillows of gnocchi with basil, fried artichokes, mushrooms, peas, and asparagus come tossed in a knockout verbena-scented butter. A crunchy fennel slaw with mint and basil makes a terrific companion to green-olive-topped grilled branzino. Herbs even appear behind the bar, where fresh basil is tossed into the Basilica Martini, a lovely cocktail with Hendrick’s gin, elderflower liqueur, and two types of bitters.
Bright and refreshing mint ice cream steals the show in a sampler of scoops atop cake crumbs, and in a dessert called Chocolate & Mint, in which it mingles with chocolate ganache, butterscotch pudding, chocolate “soil,” and slivers of waffle cookie. When sharing sweets—or any dish, really—err on the side of ordering too much. Like everything else at this wee Georgetown dining room, most portions run small.
This article appears in the September 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.