For restaurants that offer lunch in Bethesda, the suburb can be neatly divided between the haves and have nots. So says Jeff Heineman, the man behind Grapeseed, which sits squarely in the northern section of Bethesda where the chef and owner apparently hears as many crickets as potential customers on the sidewalks.
The last time Grapeseed served lunch was back in January, when Heineman decided to get the jump on Restaurant Week by launching his own promotions, including a two-course lunch for $16. This was when the proprietor decided lunch was "useless," he says. "This side of town, we've got to get the buildings done, so we have some humans.”
There are some mixed-use apartment/retail projects scheduled for completion in Heineman's stretch of Bethesda, he notes, but until that happens, Heineman says there are too many restaurants competing for too few customers. He casts a jealous eye toward the southern strip, where the Bethesda Row area offers a more sophisticated mix of retail and dining options to attract the hungry hordes.
Why then is Heineman jump-starting his lunch service again on Tuesday, Oct. 22, after a nine-month hiatus? It seems he has learned a few things since the beginning of the year. Among the lessons: that the multi-course lunch at Grapeseed ate up too much time. It became clear to Heineman that his approach wasn't working when, on his worst days, Grapeseed had fewer than 10 diners for lunch.
"At some point as an operator, you just throw your hands up and say, "I quit.'”
This time around, the chef has designed a menu with items that can be made quickly, whether steak frites or the appropriately named "In a Hurry Shrimp Saute," a half-pound of crustaceans that can be prepared a number of ways, including Creole-style or "spicy Korean." Heineman also has some surprises, like his house-made pepper lomo among the charcuterie options, or his Korean chicken sandwich. The latter is a brined breast double-fried, BonChon-style. Like the $20 Diner, Heineman loves BonChon chicken.
Then there is Heineman's mapo tofu burger. Yes, burger. He marinates his tofu in soy and other ingredients, then grills the soy-milk blocks. He'll serve the tofu with his own house-made ma la sauce, that Sichuan-style oil that provides both heat and a tingling of the tongue. How hot is Heineman's version?
"I’ve made it too hot in the past," he says. "I want it to have a tiny bit of the numbing thing, but I don’t want it to be too much. This is Bethesda.”
Starting Oct. 22, lunch will be served at Grapeseed from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays. From Oct. 23-25, Grapeseed will offer 50 percent off all main courses. Reservations advised.