Boulevard Woodgrill

$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, May 19, 2002

Before they opened the Boulevard Woodgrill this spring, its owners put potential wine salesmen on notice: "Don't show us anything we can find at Harris Teeter or Fresh Fields," Ryan Duncan, the managing partner, remembers telling them. "Nothing that people would commonly bump into. We want wines that are off the beaten path," he insisted, "affordable," and suitable for a menu with lots of grilled dishes.

By his estimate, Duncan sampled 350 wines before settling on the 40-plus selections now on his restaurant's wine list, which includes about 20 choices served by the handsome goblet. The options embrace some good values from around the globe and such respected domestic wines as Roederer brut, a sparkling white, and Sobon Estates' red zinfandel. Of everything in the restaurant, Duncan says, he's proudest of the wine program.

He's on to something. One night, as I mentally record the mating rituals in the pulsing bar, I'm pleased to see so many people asking not for the same old chardonnay or merlot, but rather riesling or shiraz. This wouldn't be such a big deal at an expense-account establishment, but it is remarkable for a restaurant whose menu reads like Mom had a hand in developing it. (The Boulevard Woodgrill is a spinoff of Faccia Luna pizzeria, a regional mini-chain.) Come to think of it, I know of a lot of fancier establishments that would benefit from offering more than a handful of the usual suspects by the glass.

I'm also happy to be eating a great piece of cod. Usually a wallflower among fish, here it is definitely a looker. Elevated on a scoop of buttermilk mashed potatoes, it's accessorized with a bright heap of julienned carrots ignited with fresh ginger, and some glistening droplets of golden oil on the plate. The fish is lightly crisp on the outside yet cooked to remain silken, and pleasantly smoky from the grill.

If only I could hear myself think! Everything about the design of the Boulevard Woodgrill encourages you to bring earplugs, from the hardwood floors and bare tabletops to the high ceilings and big glass windows. Not to mention the streams of neighbors and others who converge on the place, particularly at night, for cocktails, conversation and a bite to eat from the open, stainless steel kitchen. Where did everyone go before this newcomer showed up? If you're more concerned about refueling than making a connection, dine early; anytime, keep in mind that the Boulevard Woodgrill doesn't accept reservations, and the wait for a table can stretch to 1 1/2 hours on weekend nights. That just means you also have time to get to know the top-shelf bartenders, who not only whip up some fine cocktails but, despite the crowds, remember you from visit to visit.

The menu isn't trying to do somersaults. Appetizers are limited to about six or so dishes, which pale in comparison with what follows them. Fried calamari with marinara sauce tastes like it came from a freezer bag, and "Irish nachos" turn out to be a small mountain of thin slices of fried potato scattered with two kinds of cheese, shreds of corned beef, scallions and what the waitress says is wasabi sour cream. "I don't get the wasabi, but it works," she volunteers. I beg to differ. The junky combination tastes like a couple of deli orders that have crashed into each other (and has no discernible hint of wasabi). Salads dressed up with salmon, Stilton or goat cheese, or chicken -- the last tossed with a zippy peanut dressing -- provide better starting points.

The main dishes tap into a comfort food vein. There is a satisfying meatloaf, made from three kinds of ground meat and edged in tomato sauce, and baby back ribs, so tender the meat falls from the bone at the touch of a fork (though a little more heat or tang would probably balance the too-sweet glaze of molasses and rum). The sidekicks are terrific: fresh, crunchy coleslaw punched up with mustard and celery seeds, and french fries that look and taste hand-cut. They accompany a number of dishes, including the satisfying fish and chips and the crab cake, which is fashioned from jumbo lump crab,
parsley and Japanese bread crumbs and displayed on a fine bun. It is no surprise to learn that the chef, John Bennett, grew up near Annapolis and has worked in seafood restaurants.

Wrapping up the meal are a mere two options, cheesecake or ice cream: Take your pick from a rich French vanilla and an intense chocolate, both made elsewhere but both very good.

"People here in Clarendon eat out five, six times a week," says Duncan. "We want them to make it here once or twice a week." By concentrating on a few details, he is giving them ample reason to do just that.