There is no good way for me to tell you that the breaded, fried, rind-on lemon slices that partly comprise Terrene's "mixed fry" appetizer taste like biting down on a moist towelette with its wrapper still intact. What I mean is, there's probably no way I can convince you that this is really a good thing, that the lemons taste tart, firm, crisp and astringent, with a barely-there intimation of fruity. I'm sure I'm not helping my case by mentioning that the entire plate bears a uniform beigeness, underlined literally and figuratively by a square of matching beige butcher paper that sops up some of the grease. Or by describing the fried white anchovies that also constitute the dish as being similar in taste and texture to fried chicken livers (which I happen to love).
The sections of red onion that complete the fry-fecta, those, as you can imagine, are quite yummy. The light browning the kitchen submits the onions to coaxes out their sweetness and juiciness without clobbering the flavor. Fried onion is recognizable, yes; here, it also happens to be divine.
Pairing a little of the familiar with a lot of the foreign is how things go at Terrene, a two-month-old Central West End restaurant founded by chef Dave Owens, formerly of Cardwell's at the Plaza, and father-son business partners John E. McElwain and John P. McElwain. Though the space itself exudes an easygoing confidence, the eatery's concept eludes an easy, convenient tagline the best the house has come up with is the catchall, ironically uninspired term "inspired cuisine." Heck, it even eludes an easy pronunciation: Though Merriam-Webster dictates that the French-derived word, meaning earthly as an adjective or terrain as a noun, be pronounced terr-enn, the restaurant prefers that it be said like tureen, as in a large serving bowl.
Meanwhile, none of this really gets at the establishment's pulse. It is an organic-minded, vegetarian-friendly, socially conscious operation with a sense of humor and style. It doesn't mind following up tofu on a stick with a bloody-good cut of hanger steak. It's got no bones informing you, via little side notes along the menu, that the drinking and cooking water is filtered, that the kitchen's vegetable scraps are used in local farms and gardens for composting, and that the dining room's sleek, high-gloss tabletops have been constructed from 100 percent sustainable "shetka stone." At the same time, the cocktail menu lists a Harvey Wallbanger dubbed a Sarah Street Wallbanger, and prepared with a float of Licor 43 from Spain, instead of the traditional, I-Love-the-'70s splash of Italian Galliano.
There are actually four skewers of bean curd to that tofu on a stick dish, a mild-flavored, fluffy-textured trifle of an appetizer nicely complemented by a viscous, just-piquant-enough cashew dipping sauce. On the flipside, a small plate of roasted garlic cloves and baked, lacerated-looking olives proved pungent and truly earthy, to the point where I could have used a gardening trowel to better extract the heavenly but quite pliant cloves from their brittle, uncooperative head, and then spread them upon pert pieces of bread. I had much less trouble navigating the mussels, what seemed like a whopping two dozen of them heaped into a bowl of Belgian-ale broth. Whether it was the beer bath, or just a thorough washing of the mollusks beforehand, they weren't very briny in taste, and they were crippled by a single piece of garlic toast lying on top that was ridiculously overbuttered and oversalted. Still, the mussels managed to be plump and pleasant.
As one might expect from a restaurant keen on showcasing produce, Terrene turns out robust salads. "Knife and fork romaine" was fun to eat. Fresh and snappy, whole romaine leaves provided a lot of crunch tossed with "garlic bread shards," while the Asiago-studded "Green Goddess" dressing proved a creamy delight. (Our waiter had told us beforehand that he'd eat the Green Goddess dressing if it was ladled over newspaper.) Even more intriguing was the rocket and frissee salad. In one of the menu's asides, rocket is described as a "European annual often grown as a salad crop to be harvested when young and tender." What rocket really is which the menu admits to right after proffering that definition is arugula. But when the bitter green was combined with mounds of roasted beet, salted sunflower seeds, thumb-thick slices of ricotta salata cheese, and an exceptional, distinctive cumin vinaigrette, I was happy to pretend it was something new and exotic to me, because it was.
Though native to open seas, Terrene's cobia is farm-raised in America, and our waiter compared its flesh to striped sea bass. I really enjoyed it, though I found it significantly less fatty than striped sea bass. The fish's lean, less pronounced flavor was paired excellently with a pomegranate barbecue sauce, little tufts of green-on-the-inside, woodsy-tasting falafel and an orange and fennel salad. That aforementioned hanger steak was right on, presented medium well with a little showing of pink but no juice running down the plate. Surprisingly, the chicken-breast dinner something I always try to avoid out of sheer boredom was a pan-roasted knockout, a large, appetizing Great Wall of Poultry slathered in a mustard and Knob Creek sauce. Underneath both the steak and the chicken awaited little Brussels sprouts; I love Brussels sprouts.
There are lots of other soupcons of style I like about Terrene: the clipboard menus; the Belgian-style fries, long and stringy and soggy and greasy and well-browned and bendy and sodium-alicious, just the way I like 'em; the cheeky cocktail menu's darling concoctions, like the Moscow Mule, a lime vodka-and-ginger beer creation that hearkens fresh-squeezed lemonade at the summer fair more than it does either Moscow or a mule; the servers' drab-blue, collarless shirts, which (unintentionally, I think) look like Communist-worker, don't-mess-with-Mao uniforms.
On a rare occasion, though, Owens' head-in-the-clouds cunning gets the best of his feet-firmly-on-the-terrene sensibility. The dessert menu, at least upon first reading, doesn't sound all that tempting; witness entries such as "steamed pudding cake" or "rice custard Napoleon." (I tried these two desserts and the chocoholic one, named Chocolate 33; they're agreeable, but I can still say that dessert is not my favorite course at Terrene.) At lunch, there is a St. Paul sandwich, now most often found at shady chop suey joints, that is basically an egg foo young sandwich. The St. Paul is a most unappealing thing to look at, a mess of omelette studded with an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink mélange of veggie shreddings and, huh? Edamame? that should have been earmarked for the compost heap. I had been told by my server at lunch that day that she liked the sandwich. That must be because it tastes mostly like the crinkle-cut pickles and chile mayo smeared on top that is, when you get enough of those condiments into one bite to override the vaguely uneasy flavor of the omelette itself, resting upon untoasted wheat bread that offers no crunchy counterpoint.
Though Terrene's eco-grooviness smacks of college-campus coffeehouse co-ops selling fair-trade house blends and organic sandwiches served on spelt bread, Terrene's décor and clientele gear toward high-end cosmopolitan. (Not prices, though; a little more than half of the entrees run under $20, which is quite refreshing.) There is a postmodern-cafeteria look to the dining room, thanks to the row of four-tops running down the length of the space offset by metal-legged, plastic-molded seats, and the flank of straight-backed booth seating abutting one wall. Hard floors and a tin ceiling keep the air filled with bright noise; a very diverse crowd of artsy folks, retirees, and ladies who lunch help imbue the room with genuine warmth and help make Terrene ground worth visiting.