Beginner’s Pluck

A local chef strikes out on her own; sweetness follows.

BLINTZES MAY NOT be the best reason to open a restaurant, but I can think of worse. So can Robin Leventhal. “I’m Jewish, so I have blintzes on for brunch, because that’s one of my favorite things to eat for breakfast,” she says. “And you can’t find a blintz in this town.” Fair enough.

Levinthal’s dues-paying stints at Deux Tamales and Cyclops have finally enabled her to open a place of her own. And she isn’t doing it the easy way. The chef/owner of Crave has done a cannonball into the ultrahip, highly competitive Capitol Hill restaurant scene.

The big sign above the java counter makes Crave, nestled in the Capitol Hill Arts Center, look like a fancy espresso stand, at least until you spot a dozen tables neatly set in anticipation of the nightly theater rush. It was there that I wolfed down a roasted beet salad ($7): greens, goat cheese, smoked onions, and aged sherry vinaigrette. Even eating hurriedly, I found myself admiring the restaurant. The kitchen was snug, compact, cozy?but somehow not cramped. Same with the dining room, whose fishbowl quality (courtesy of floor-to-ceiling windows) makes it feel more spacious than it is.

After the evening’s performance, my friends and I ordered the artisanal cheese plate ($9)?which featured manchego and Cabrales?whereupon our server cheerfully advised that we pair it with a 2001 Alsatian gewürztraminer ($7.50/glass). Having savored the wine and cheese and watched several plates of goat cheese gnocchi ($14) pass by, I surrendered and ordered some for myself. Unlike most gnocchi around town, these were al dente; as a result, the softer ingredients (butternut squash and dried apricots) and the crunchier ones (toasted walnuts) made the dish a three-tiered study in texture, while the sum total of these disparate flavors (plus the marsala-sage brown butter sauce) was, miraculously, more savory than sweet. As pumpkin ravioli and its ilk continue their quiet reign of terror, it’s nice to see Crave swim against the tide of pasta-as-dessert.

Which is not to say that Levinthal fears sweetness. “I use fruit in savory ways a lot because I think it’s a little surprising,” she says. “I used to do a ravioli at the old Cyclops? it was a smoked salmon ravioli with apricots and pecans, and I always loved that.” The dinner menu at Crave spikes several dishes besides the gnocchi with sweet autumnal flavors. One of Levinthal’s favorites, the duck confit ($15), comes with “drunken fig compote,” while the curried lamb ($14) includes sweet potato-parsnip hash?not to mention a watercress salad ($6) accented with Venezuelan oranges, cardamom candied almonds, and tangerine oil.

To accompany a menu chockablock with strong flavors, Levinthal and her staff have crafted a bracing atmosphere, thanks in large part to Crave’s location. “There’s events going on in this building every night of the week,” she reports. “The creativity and the energy of the people in the building, and the potential for feeding each other . . . I think the cooperative quality is part of what really charmed me to the space.”

Perhaps the constant thrum of artistic energy is partly responsible for getting Crave off to such a rousing start?the week-old restaurant already feels like a neighborhood standby. Meanwhile, Levinthal’s longtime culinary vision?including those wonderful blintzes ($8), wrapped around ricotta and quince butter?has come to fruition at last. Quite literally.