Kora (Full Review)

Hyper-modern chef Morou Ouattara switches gears with pizza and pasta in Arlington

Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for dinner.

The logo on Kora’s awnings, menus, and Web site has a subscript that looks like a signature: “Italian by Morou.” This refers to chef Morou Ouattara—who goes by just his first name now—best known for the boundary-pushing dishes he put out at his now-shuttered Farrah Olivia in Old Town. So it would be safe to assume he’d be the one in the kitchen freshening up pizza and pasta.

But Morou isn’t cooking. He’s just the restaurateur—like the owner of a basketball team who watches from the box seats. His brother Amadou is behind the stoves.

For their part, Morou and his wife, Heather, have done the best they can in their new—some might say cursed—Crystal City space, where accomplished chefs José Andrés and Roberto Donna both flamed out. To get rid of any traces of Donna’s Bebo Trattoria, the Ouattaras painted the walls a deep purple and hung fabric from the ceiling to lower it. A colorful Warholesque montage of their daughter, for whom the restaurant is named, lights up one wall.

Amadou Ouattara, who worked at I Ricchi for seven years and has opened two places of his own—Biscotti in Derwood and the closed Salvia in Middleburg—is still working to banish the ghosts of kitchens past. His successes include good fried calamari served with an unconventional basil aïoli. The gnudi—like gnocchi but fluffier—are also a highlight, their anise infusion a good match for the roasted butternut squash they’re set on.

Lasagna and pizza won’t set the place apart from other red-sauce joints. And some other dishes are disappointing. Lumpy arancini were dense, the lobster inside rendered flavorless. Steamed mussels were overcooked. Rolls of veal scaloppine were tough.

Desserts also could use help: Profiteroles were stale, and there was an airy if forgettable version of tiramisu. Combine the menu with harried service and John Mayer on the speakers, and you get a restaurant that feels like a generic chain in a bustling mall. And nothing at all like Morou.

–March, 2010