A warm harbor in Prince George's Bond 45 offers abundant Italian fare
By Tom Sietsema, June 2010
There's no red carpet at Bond 45 in National Harbor. It just feels that way.
The sense that you're in the home of an especially exuberant host sometimes begins at the long, stained-oak bar, where mixologists give arrivals a verbal salute. Other times, the professional embrace commences with a dapper greeter who ushers diners through the middle of an open kitchen to their table in one of several handsome rooms graced with antique tiles, art-deco-style light fixtures and wine-colored leather banquettes.Smart start: To the right of the path, patrons catch steaks and fish coming off the heat. To the left, a rainbow of vegetable salads and charcuterie is on display behind glass. Even before you see a menu, you're hankering for something grilled and something green."Cocktails?"
You look up from your perch to see Ms. or Mr. Congeniality, who explains the Italian menu. The descriptions make everything sound appealing; even when a server up-sells some cheese, you can't fault the delivery. (And as it happens, the house-made burrata, priced $4 higher than the $8 mozzarella we first considered, is buttery and decadent.) The guide's departure is followed by the delivery of the first of several treats: freshly baked and slightly cheesy popovers.
Cocktails selected from Bond 45's "Prohibition" list will make you grin. They're poured from teapots into matching cups, just the way New York owner Shelly Fireman says his grandmother served the strong stuff back when it was illegal. The glass I keep returning to mixes gin, elderflower liqueur, and grapefruit and lemon juices. It's called Illegally Blonde and goes down easily. The classics are just as intoxicating.
To maintain a good mood, graze among the vegetable antipasti. For $21, the table gets a choice of four items. Roasted red and yellow peppers brighten up a plate, as do earthy beets paired with juicy orange. Sweet and sour eggplant is both, thanks to capers and raisins in the mix, and broccoli rabe is better for its tan slivers of garlic. There are artichokes, too, in a fluffy couscous speckled with tomatoes and peppers. Like your prelude heartier? Meatballs draped in tomato sauce are big, soft and satisfying; eggplant Parmesan is home-style comfort. Steamed clams swim in a tomato-y and slightly spicy broth that puts those popovers to more use.
As with the original Bond 45, in New York's theater district, this waterfront retreat is big and brash: more than 250 seats spread across eight rooms (plus a patio), and enough paintings to stock a museum. (Some of the art is random. One night, I sat facing framed boats, nudes, bowls of fruit and a German shepherd.) When I asked owner Fireman, who has restaurants near such iconic New York sites as Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, why he chose National Harbor for his eighth venture, he responded: "Where was I going to go" in New York? "We're always going against 40 other guys."
I'm partial to meat on the bone; it tends to have more flavor. The rewards for ordering bone-in cuts at Bond 45 include the (corn-fed and dry-aged) New York strip steak and a thick and juicy veal chop. Rib-eye comes nicely marbled, but the night I got the meat, the slab appeared to have been flattened by a tank.
Other dishes, particularly those originating from the water, get in way of the fun. A rack of scampi looks impressive, but despite a dusting of chili flakes and far too much butter, the seafood is bland. Lobster (and shrimp and clams) is wasted on a risotto that more closely resembles a rice casserole. There's also a Jumbo Crab Steak that inspires a question, which is, in fact, posed on the menu: What is it? "Glad you asked," says a perky server, who details jumbo lump crab enriched with mayonnaise and herbs, pressed into the shape of a steak and poised on a wisp of brioche. The result is ... dense. Why not just do a cake? Served whole, branzino tarted up with juicy little tomatoes on the plate leaves a better taste in my mouth.
Of the side dishes, the creamed broccoli rabe is best. A veneer of cheese on top and bits of slightly crunchy vegetable in the puree give the accompaniment an edge. Roast potatoes, however, are sliced in chunks that are too thick, leaving parts underdone. The chunks also taste warmed-over. Mashed potatoes are wet and flavorless. Polenta is a snooze after a bite or two. Do like Michael Pollan, and "eat your colors," as the author and activist preaches in his latest book, "Food Rules." In addition to the broccoli rabe, the grilled asparagus with its web of melted Parmesan is also pleasing.
Dessert is introduced on a big tray. You might beg off, having eaten that fist-size popover or all 20 ounces of the New York strip. If you like tiramisu, however, here's a place to indulge. The confection has just the right amount of coffee, chocolate and mascarpone. The server's eyes might widen when she describes the tortoni. It turns out she's not exaggerating. The cool white ball of ice cream, flavored with candied orange, paved in sliced almonds and lashed with caramel sauce, is irresistible. The "bucket" of chocolate mousse probably would merit a frown from the first lady. One way to sidestep guilt is to share the stuff, which is scooped out of two small pails (there's whipped cream, too) at the table.
But wait! There's more! Just when you think dinner is over, along comes a manager with a sheet of warm chocolate chip cookies. The first time it happened, I figured the gesture was a last-minute nicety. By my fourth visit, stuffed as I was, I had become Pavlov's pooch, smacking my lips in anticipation of one last treat.
Even if you're not a regular here, you're made to feel like one. But, like any regular, you learn the kitchen's strengths after a few meals. Experience has taught me to load up on vegetables, follow with some turf and loosen my belt for a sweet something.