The blue plate here is certainly special
But much at Blue 44 is just routine
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, April 1, 2012
The start of the week tends to be slow for a lot of restaurants, which is why Blue 44 dangles one of America's best-loved foods in front of customers on Monday night (and then only). Whereas some of the competition attracts company with half-price bottles of wine early in the week, Christofer Nardelli, the owner of the year-old establishment near Chevy Chase Circle, uses golden fried chicken as a lure to get neighbors out of their roosts and into one of his 65 seats.
Count me in. Of the nearly 20 different dishes I've tried over three visits to Blue 44, that $19 blue plate special (which comes with a house salad and dessert) is the best reason to introduce yourself to the amiable young staff. The joy starts with three pieces of crisp chicken that hint of the sage, garlic and Tabasco they've been marinated in, and continues with their companions on the plate: homey mashed potatoes with a crater full of gravy that reminds me to call Mom, green beans that have some agreeable fight in them, and a baking powder biscuit that's so light and tender it ought to be delivered by the basketful.
Most dishes on the menu aren't so compelling, but if you know how to pick and choose here, Blue 44 can become a reliable answer to what's for lunch or dinner.
From my seat at a window table, I got a glimpse of how appreciated Blue 44 must be in the neighborhood. Other than a Starbucks, a bagel shop and the Chevy Chase Lounge, there's little to engage residents' appetites. Nardelli initially hoped to open a sports bar; the only evidence of that early game plan are two 50-inch plasma screens in the back bar. The name commemorates the owner's working-class home of Pittsburgh and a friend and basketball fan who died young and revered a famous 44: former Boston Celtic guard Danny Ainge.
Aiming for "a neighborhood vibe with a touch of class," Nardelli hung black-and-white photographs of Chevy Chase and Pittsburgh circa the '20s and '30s on the walls beneath the faux pressed-tin ceiling. He also carved little zones of privacy, using half-walls, in the floor plan. The small space is a tad dark, and the bland music needs to be rethought, but for a casual night out with the kids, or an easy dinner with granddad, the ambiance works fine.
Chef James Turner, 41, hails from the Eastern Shore and has cooked in a handful of area kitchens, most recently Harry Brown's in Annapolis and Persimmon in Bethesda. His menu is designed for mass appeal - burgers, wings, mussels and steak are all present and accounted for - but it comes with a few fun quirks to elevate the list above the chain variety.
There are butter-splashed, potato-filled pirogi, for instance, at the request of his boss, and a steak-and-cheese sandwich that pays allegiance to Pittsburgh rather than Philadelphia. The difference? The former construction is crammed with french fries and cole slaw in addition to the expected shaved beef and provolone cheese. Turner scales down the usual crab cakes, serving them as four miniature fried seafood balls with a swipe of lemon aioli and some juniper-spiced pickled vegetables that turn out to be more of a draw than the centerpiece. "Cocktail reception fodder," a friend branded the appetizer, and I concur.
Steamed mussels are tried and true and also delicious in their broth of cider, garlic and smoked tomatoes that keeps you dipping back for more sauce. Caesar salad is no more than routine, though, as are the vaguely sweet "Thai" chicken wings that are meaty but don't take you anywhere near Bangkok. As for the deviled eggs, they're so devoid of seasoning they really ought to be rebranded angelic. Those pirogi are hearty enough to qualify as a light dinner; plan to order them as a starter and share with your tablemates.
I was tickled to see spaghetti and meatballs on the menu, but the dish's execution left me cold. The pasta was so limp, it could have been cooked in the dishwasher. Hanger steak is flaccid beef cooked the way you ask and most interesting for its sides of sauteed spinach and potato gratin.
Some of the chef's notions are dated, but I applaud Turner for taking the time to cut his own potatoes to make delicious french fries and to whip up his own vinaigrettes and sauces when Sysco could make it easier on the kitchen (but less appealing for the diner).
I can't remember the last time I had fish cooked in parchment paper. The Reagan era, maybe? It doesn't matter. Turner bundles the day's catch (rockfish when I tried it) with lemon slices, julienne carrots and fresh thyme, among other flavor boosters. The steamed fish emerges from its crinkly wrap hot and flavorful, with saffron-tinted rice and unfortunately limp broccoli. Overall, the entree is a nice light route to take. The robust bouillabaise is worth casting for, too, and it comes with crostini slathered with red pepper aioli that make good dunkers for the saffron-laced tomato broth.
Dessert is a no-brainer. Ask for the Campfire Torte - a pretty riff on classic s'mores, updated with salt-sprinkled dulce de leche - and be sure to get extra spoons. Unlike that chicken, the confection is something you can splurge on every day of the week.