Tom Sietsema wrote about Cedar for a June 2009 First Bite column.
It's hard to blame the curious passersby who duck their heads into, and sometimes quickly out of, the latest addition to Penn Quarter. Cedar is an underground restaurant, after all, with a dining room that isn't apparent until you reach the bottom of a steep flight of stairs.
There, you'll find linen-draped tables surrounded by a digitally reproduced cedar forest, as well as a menu created by chef Andrew Kitko, who was last seen cooking at Redwood in Bethesda.
Co-owner Craig Merrills says he and his two business partners "fell in love" with the basement space, which they decorated to reflect "an outdoorsy feel." Hence those trees on the wall, taken from a photograph and blown up to near-life-size proportions. Warming up the ceiling are floating fabric panels trimmed in (what else?) cedar.
The staff gives off good vibes, too. When a customer challenges a bartender to pour something nonalcoholic and more interesting than a Diet Coke, the man behind the counter whips up a fizzy, not-too-sweet limeade brightened with fresh mint.
For Merrills, who also has an interest in the Front Page in Dupont Circle and the Madhatter downtown, Cedar represents a departure. "This is all about the food," he says.
In these early days for the restaurant, which opened last month, I sometimes taste what he means. The relative intimacy of the 70-seat Cedar appears to be a better fit for the 32-year-old chef than was the sprawling Redwood.
Neatly pared asparagus, lemon mousseline and golden "olive oil" croutons are a nice nod to the season, and a pan roast of local oysters in a sweet bath of cream and leeks is so appealing, I have to remind my dining companion to save some for me to try. (The same goes for the tall, moist and many-layered carrot cake.) Pea soup punctuated with garlic flan tastes flat, however, despite the custard and bacon bits in the bowl, and a soft-shell crab sandwich deserves something sexier than toasted white bread to keep it together. Entrees appear to be designed with lumberjacks and bargain seekers in mind: A $25 plate of herbed pork tenderloin with Swiss chard and warm cherries could easily feed two diners.
In reality, says Merrills, Cedar's targets are residents of the neighborhood, although "the bonus is the Verizon Center" looming nearby.
(June 17, 2009)