An infusion of cash and talent transforms a Bethesda restaurant
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Aug. 27, 2006
Gone is the creaky wooden porch out front and the dark, scrappy bar inside. Missing, too, is a menu that relied more on surf than turf. As it heads into its eighth year -- practically middle age for a restaurant -- Black's Bar & Kitchen isn't what it used to be. And that's just fine by me, because it has morphed into something better.
"Black's" refers to owner Jeff Black, a chef and restaurateur who over the years has created a small empire of interesting places to eat in and around the capital, including Addie's in Rockville, Black Market Bistro in Garrett Park and BlackSalt in Washington. Black's Bar & Kitchen has been a respectable performer, but the infusion of a couple million dollars into the interior and a new face in the kitchen (Mallory Buford, plucked from Addie's) has transformed a nice neighborhood spot into a prime dining destination.
Restaurants aren't hard to find in Bethesda, but good ones are almost as rare as telephone booths.
Locals have picked up on the change, big time. The lovely, pebble-textured patio, with a gurgling fountain, has been packed every time I've been by, and the bar is routinely filled with so many good-looking young men and women, it could pass for a Craigslist mixer. The renovation, which shuttered the restaurant for nearly four months, eliminated 40 seats from the neighboring dining room, which means tables go quickly, and you want to eat early or late to avoid a full house. One wall features a mural of a vineyard at sunset; across from the 70-foot-long image is a glass-enclosed wine room that keeps its contents at a quality-enhancing 57 degrees. A few tables peek into the rear kitchen, a blur of white and black as cooks and servers prepare and deliver your meal. The look is as soothing as the sound levels are annoying. (I'm here for a meal, not a jam session.)
The new menu puts the desires of the diner first, starting with a collection of small tastes, for those who want just a nibble, before moving on to first courses, composed plates and a la carte items. Whatever you're longing for, the kitchen can appease it. Those small tastes run about $4, and include such seductions as grilled asparagus with a biting ravigote sauce, cod brandade fritters with a lemony aioli, and amazingly light corn pancakes topped with a teasing green tomato jam. Sesame-fried oysters are soggy, though, and a goat cheese-filled phyllo cup looks like a beginning cook's attempt at something fancy. It's clumsy, filled with too much goat cheese. Thai-style beef drizzled with chili oil is so itty-bitty a portion that it's hard to get a sense of the nibble. I'd gladly pay a buck for a bit more.
I have yet to meet a fish dish I don't like here. Oysters from the bar put me on the water, if only in my mind, and an appetizer of fried soft-shell crab is inspired, its hot crunch countered by a base of cool melon and a drizzle of punchy mustard oil. Seafood stew is packed with shrimp, mussels, clams and tender squid, everything more flavorful for a broth colored with olives, lemon peel and tomato. A couple of pieces of toasted bread, slathered with a smoky, paprika-fueled aioli, grace the assembly and heighten the thrill of the catch. Pan-roasted cod is served as if my companions and I were eating in Portugal, with clams, garlic, kale and chorizo putting in appearances. No matter the preparation, the kitchen gets it right. Lightly battered red snapper reveals lots of snowy fish beneath its fried crust, and its base of couscous provides a fluffy bed. Tuna comes to the table as handsome chunks of rare, deep-red fish, its surface scattered with black pepper and fennel seeds. For all the entree's heft and heartiness, I could be eating beefsteak. The tuna sits atop creamy, sage-scented grits; the rest of the plate is filled by a jumble of roasted cauliflower, tomatoes, artichokes and olives. True, there's a lot going on, but every element adds to the show.
Staying with fish, though, is like stopping after the first few chapters of an exciting novel; you'll miss some delicious developments if you don't delve deeper into the chef's repertoire, specifically the a la carte list with its meatier options. Big as a baseball, Buford's brined, inches-thick Berkshire pork bursts with piggy flavor, and it relies solely on its marinade and pan juices for enhancement. Duck is spiced with coriander, mustard seeds, pepper and such, then grilled and served as a fan on the plate. The bird is simple -- and sensational. Meanwhile, the kitchen's 12-ounce rib-eye is worthy of a good steakhouse, beefy, tender and striped from a hot grill. It doesn't need anything more, though the menu lists the option of half a dozen sauces, running from bearnaise to chimichurri, for a few dollars extra.
Come to think of it, some area steakhouses could do themselves a favor by checking out the sides at Black's, where the onion rings are sweet and crisp, hard to stop eating, and the creamed spinach allows the vegetable to shine. And Black's wine list, with its varied styles and flavors, is a treat; the choices from California's Central Coast and Washington state are particularly impressive.
I've had both middling and excellent service at Black's. It just depends. Some meals, little goes right; even managers patrolling the space overlook empty wineglasses, crumb-paved tables and lags in service that result in your pinot noir appearing just as you're finishing the pork chop it was meant to accompany. Other times, everything hums along, and you find yourself wanting to clone your waiter. The good news is, with each passing visit, the service improves.
There are a hundred details to attend to in a restaurant; some establishments overlook a lot of them, because they're busy, or lazy, or they don't know any better. Two details are significant, though, and Black's gives them their due. The bread basket includes tender biscuits that are so good, you'll be tempted to fill up on them. And the dessert list includes a couple of knockout performances that help offset the lesser choices. The charmers include a cherry sorbet that smacks of an orchard of fruit in each icy bite, and a warm, blueberry-filled pastry framed with a roasted peach and sweet corn ice cream. (The light crunch? The pastry is phyllo wrapped around crepe dough.)
These bookends to dinner make for memorable first and last impressions. Frankly, though, I'd be just as happy to be stuck eating in the middle.