The Argentine hordes show up stylishly late for dinner at Divino Lounge, just before the kitchen closes at 11–a boon to those of us trying to get a table during the more-conventional dinner hour.
A swanky lounge, floor-grazing drapes, and abstract art make for a sleek Latin supper club. Food is a cross between of-the-moment tapas and Iberian and Latin American classics. And it's a shrine to grilled meat.
In a meal of hot and cold tapas, consider the beautifully fried ham-and-chicken croquetas, earthy duck leg with prunes, an elegant vegetable terrine with white asparagus sauce, and silken avocado with crab and citrus dressing. More Spanish and more traditional are little bowls of olives, cheese, and charcuterie; tortilla, an omelet of thin-sliced potatoes served at room temperature; and grilled sardines shiny with olive oil. More substantial: blood sausage with chimichurri–a pastelike condiment made from olive oil, garlic, parsley, onion, and cayenne–and ropa vieja with serrano ham. Seafood fans will want to nibble on shrimp in garlic sauce, a fixture at every Barcelona tapas bar; piquillo peppers stuffed with shrimp; and globe artichokes laced with seafood. Skip the tapas-size paellas, not as flavorful as main-course versions that are made to order.
Dry sherries are the traditional choice with tapas, and there are several to choose from, along with wines by the glass and bottle. South American vintages are well-represented. And the bar makes first-rate caipirinhas and mojitos, too.
The dinner menu offers some repeats from the tapas list as starters, along with a couple of marvelous add-ons like Basque-style crab gratin and roasted-pepper salad with manchego cheese and cherry vinaigrette. Grilled meats dominate with New York strip, short ribs, and rack of lamb making the best showing. A little more rustic, and authentic, is the parrillada for two with blood sausage, sweetbreads, chorizo, short ribs, and a chewy, inexpensive cut of beef known as flap meat, aka skirt steak. It's the choice of extended Argentine families dining here–they order several depending on how many people are dining. Embellishments to the meat plates range from more of that addictive chimichurri to roasted sweet peppers. Mashed potatoes and cheesy stuffed potatoes have their fans, but the fat homemade French fries are fabulous.
Veal sweetbreads, done two ways, are not as memorable the other meats. Homey rooster stew made with almonds and shredded chicken is a dish you might find at grandma's. More refined poultry picks are bronzed grilled quail and chicken.
This is not the place to indulge a passion for fin fish, which have been overcooked on occasion. If you crave something briny, go for the lavish lobster-and-seafood paella or the more offbeat paella negra made with squid ink and seafood. Paella Valenciana with sausage, chicken, pork, and duck is very good.
For dessert, arroz con leche–rice pudding with raisins–is as comforting as it gets. Crème caramel with a refined dulce de leche sauce, and dulce de leche-filled crepes, when they make it to the table hot enough, are fine ways to soothe the sweet tooth. And though Argentina is not known for its chocolate confections, the molten chocolate "biscuit" with soft chocolate ganache will satisfy chocoholics.
There can be glitches–lags between courses, items that appear on the menu but are not available. Owner Carlos DiLaudo, an event planner for the Argentine Embassy and about as gracious as they come, is usually there to smooth things over. He might even bring you another mojito.
Open Wednesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner until 11 PM. Bar and tapas lounge open Friday and Saturday until 2 AM.
ATMOSPHERE: Sophisticated, with twentysomethings in the tapas lounge, and couples and families–including large, extended Latin American families–in the dining room.
FOOD: Spanish and Latin American tapas, grilled meats, and other classic dishes.
SERVICE: Competent and friendly, not always knowledgeable.
VALUE: Great value for tapas; good value for dinner.
PRICE: Tapas, $4.95 to $9. Dinner entrées $14 to $25. Dinner for two: around $80.
BOTTOM LINE: Good addition to the Bethesda dining and lounge scene and an upscale spot for lovers of Latin American parrillada.