15 Ria

The firelit modern American dining room at the Washington Terrace Hotel.

From March 2003

It's hard to describe the cooking of chef Jamie Leeds at 15 ria. Calling it "home cooking" makes it sound less ambitious than it is. "Comfort food" calls up visions of mashed potatoes and macaroni-and-cheese–wonderful versions of both are on her menu. It's not exactly "regional American" because there's no particular region involved. "Modern American" sounds too contrived and eclectic. I'll call it "comfortable cooking," not only because 15 ria is one of the most welcoming restaurants around but also because the food is appealing, varied, and fairly priced.

At a time when restaurant design leans towards stark, often cold, minimalism, the designers of 15 ria have mixed colors, patterns, and textures in an appealing way.

It's worth timing your arrival to allow for a drink at the bar. Drinks are made with fresh fruit and fruit juices, and the bar menu, meant for sharing with drinks, is first-rate. Popcorn shrimp and calamari are beautifully fried, served in a cone with a spicy cayenne remoulade. Mini-burgers, with shoestring fries and pickles, are tasty and fun. A Toothpick Platter includes pigs-in-a-blanket made from spicy andouille sausage, a pile of fried calamari, and some unfortunately doughy jalape–o hush puppies. The onion rings–sliced thin, battered with buttermilk batter, fried tempura-crisp, and drizzled with bleu-cheese dressing–are among the best in town.

The centerpiece of Leeds's menu is a monthly-changing selection of daily specials, a meat or fish entrée and a choice of two side dishes. Priced between $17 and $23, these are a good value. Tuesday night's molasses-braised beef short ribs are terrific, long-cooked and succulent with a trace of sweetness. Roast-suckling pig is another treat, moist and tender with the occasional crunch of crackling. Smoked pork chops have been delicious. Catfish are crusted in cornmeal and beautifully fried, and a fried dorado was superb.

Part of the appeal of this menu is the seasonally changing array of side dishes, such as slow-cooked collard greens and Brussels sprouts with pecans, rich and creamy mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese made with good, sharp cheddar, and those wonderful onion rings.

There's plenty to choose from if you don't get the daily special. Starters include a classic pan roast of oysters, pancetta, and potatoes in a creamy sauce, and good crabcakes nicely complemented by the sweetness of red and yellow beets and the tang of horseradish. One of my favorite winter entrée dishes is Leeds's large rabbit pot pie topped with a puff-pastry crust. The smothered double-cut pork chop with sweet-and-sour cabbage and warm potato salad is another treat, and the sirloin is cooked as ordered beneath its crust of bleu cheese. The only disappointment has been a roast chicken, undercooked in its too-sweet tomato sauce.

The dessert menu is homey. Chocolate lovers will like the fudge brownie sundae and the hazelnut double-ganache chocolate cake. I'd rather go back to the bar and choose from the impressive menu of bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys that includes such rarities as A.H. Hirsch pot-stilled 16-year-old for $16, or you can splurge with Distiller's Masterpiece, an 18-year-old aged in a Cognac cask, for $45.