A Whole New Man Cave
Meat is on the menu as a K Street chef opens a sports bar in the 'burbs
By Candy Sagon
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, Oct. 19, 2008
Sound Check: 84 decibels (Extremely Loud)
Going to a sports bar on a Redskins game night and asking for one of the flat-screens to be switched to a tennis match: Am I completely nuts? Or is this just a smart test of a restaurant's goodwill and hospitality?
Well, yes, to both questions.
The bar was Thirsty Bernie Sports Bar and Grill, the Arlington place opened in June by former K Street chef Jamie Stachowski. Our first visit was the night of the Redskins-Giants season opener. We arrived during the first quarter, when hopes were still high on both sides and the noise level was deafening. The hostess told us that there were three parties waiting for a table ahead of us but that we could hang out at the big communal table near the bar. We settled in next to a large group of burgundy jerseys.
When the waitress brought us our drinks, we asked if one of the 15 screens could be switched to the men's quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament. She said she'd check. I texted my son that we had just asked to watch tennis during a Redskins game in a sports bar. He texted back, "R U still alive?"
But Bernie's staff promptly made the switch, no one complained, and we ended up not only watching a good tennis match but also enjoying an even better meal.
Stachowski previously owned the downtown Restaurant Kolumbia, a meaty haven for carnivores who prefer their protein smoked, cured or stuffed into casings. He even dubbed the room where he cured the meats "the man cave," a description some might think applies to a sports bar.
But not in this case. Bernie, in a strip mall at Glebe Road and Lee Highway, is noisy but neighborly. It pulls in a mix of families, couples and beer-drinking buddies. The dark polished wood, slate floor and copper-topped tables seem to thrum with conversation and game spirit even when no major game is being broadcast. The noise level by 8:30 most weeknights is that of a happy, well-lubricated party.
In his new digs, Stachowski presents an edited version of his downtown menu, showcasing his house-made charcuterie, smoked meats and sausage and adding those eternal bar favorites, wings and burgers. He admits he's still trying to get everything running smoothly, which might explain why the kitchen can be inconsistent: A sandwich is great on one visit, a little dry and underwhelming on another.
My recommendation: Order from the front of the menu card. The sandwiches, burgers andappetizers are generally excellent, but many of the pricier entrees on the back need more fine-tuning to be real winners. And besides, this is a sports bar, people. Time to man up and eat meat. Leave that prissy grilled chicken Caesar for another day.
What makes Thirsty Bernie different from most sports bars (other than its compact 84-seat size) is that Stachowski makes nearly everything himself. He buys his chuck whole (instead of in pieces or pre-ground) and grinds it twice to get the soft texture he likes for the burgers and meatballs. He makes his own pumpernickel bread for the pastrami sandwich and the crusty kaiserlike rolls for the beef on weck. The pickles, the mayo, even the blue cheese sauce for the wings, are made in-house.
And then there are the fabulous fries. I confess: I'm a fry fanatic. I want them hot, crisp and golden. I do not want them so wan and limp that they look like they need Cialis. The fries here are hand-cut and twice fried, the way the French (actually, the Belgians) meant them to be. (If you're tempted to order the onion rings instead, don't. They are, as the French would say, tres ordinaire.)
Also on my must-order list: the pastrami sandwich, which is smoky, garlicky and meltingly tender. The meat comes piled sky-high on thick slices of the pumpernickel with tangy-sweet pickled onions and melted Swiss.
For a hearty appetizer, don't miss the daily butcher-board assortment of three (sometimes four) cured and smoked meats accompanied by slices of pumpernickel, pickled radishes and baby onions, and a grainy mustard sauce. This is Stachowski's true calling. Most nights he includes plump slices of grilled kielbasa and a velvety country pate wrapped in bacon and dotted with wine-marinated raisins. Lately he has been featuring thin slices of bresaola (air-dried beef), and one night we got a bonus helping of linguica, the Portuguese sausage that he normally adds to the broth for his steamed mussels.
Speaking of the mussels, they're a bargain at $13 for about three dozen of the beauties, swimming in a briny broth full of chopped garlic and slices of that linguica. A crisp finger of garlic bread, perfect for dunking in the broth afterward, accompanies them.
"Gotta try the meatball sliders," our waiter told us on another visit as we dithered over which appetizers to order. We could see that almost every table around us had a plate of them, so we got them, too. Four meatballs, the size of ping-pong balls and each jabbed with a toothpick, come drizzled with Parmesan sauce on a crispy log of toasted bread. They're mild and soft, although ours had cooled off a bit by the time they reached our table.
The burgers here are almost a giant version of the meatballs. The beef is top quality, but I think some salt would help bring out its flavor. The burgers come with a wide choice of toppings, including sauteed mushrooms in a cream sauce. You can even get the blue cheese sauce that comes with the wings (not my personal choice, but nice to know the kitchen is accommodating).
As for those wings, we tried them the traditional way (fried, Buffalo style) and grilled. The wings are large and meaty, but we all agreed that the grilled version brushed with barbecue sauce is the better choice.
Beef on weck, the generous roast beef sandwich that's another bar favorite from Buffalo (it gets its name from the caraway-topped kummelweck roll that's similar to a kaiser roll), is respectable. The roast beef is smoky and lean and comes in a gut-busting portion that my male dining companion couldn't finish (especially after sharing two appetizers and fries).
The biggest letdown came from a couple of the entrees. The crab cakes, although lovely and filler-free, came drenched in a gloppy, bland hollandaise and were accompanied by tasteless rice. The hanger steak, one of the most flavorful cuts of beef, needs to be sliced thinly, not whacked into large, sinewy hunks, which is the way it's served here, napped with Madeira sauce.
If your cholesterol level can stand dessert on top of all this, the choice is easy, because there's only one: a brownie sundae. Brownie chunks, vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce are layered in a tall tumbler. Not fancy, but what's not to like about ice cream and chocolate?
Although a few foodies have kvetched on the various food blogs about Thirsty Bernie's service, we had absolutely no complaints. Even that first chaotic night, the young, friendly staff served us promptly and enthusiastically.
Stachowski, who has been in the restaurant biz for decades, says he's enjoying his switch from fine dining downtown to a smaller, casual suburban place: "With fine dining, there's much more tension and stress. It's like a grand symphony," he says. "Here, it's fun and a little bit chill. It's more like the high school band."