Tater Tots and Tuesday Tastings
At EatBar, an interesting wine list is paired with an eclectic menu
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, April 1, 2007
Seventy wines by the glass. Chalkboard menus that make room for steak tartare as well as tater tots. A space where the lighting erases a few years from our faces, the booths are swathed in what feels like velvet, and the tables are paved in copper.
The formula behind EatBar, connected to the modern American restaurant Tallula in Arlington, is a neat one for anyone who enjoys a dash of style with dinner and doesn't want to max out a credit card for the pleasure. Before EatBar opened in mid-January, Tallula's chef, Nathan Anda, 29, says he envisioned "a destination where people come to eat three, four times a week." With prices for main courses averaging $11, the area's latest gastropub sounded like a recipe for a hit.
Too bad someone isn't paying sufficient attention to the details here -- such as making sure the larder is stocked.
"We're out of the fried oysters, we're out of the fries, we're out of the onion rings," a young server informs me on my maiden voyage, just moments after a friend and I have seated ourselves shortly after 6 o'clock in what used to be Tallula's lounge. About half of what's advertised on the gold-framed chalkboards above the bar is unavailable to us this evening. "We had a big party last night," the server explains when we ask why so much is so missing. "They took over the whole restaurant," she continues, gesturing to the dining room next door. We think but don't ask: No one had time to shop today?
The scene more or less repeats itself when I come back the next week. "We're out of oysters and seafood tonight," another waitress tells us, just as we've decided that oysters and seafood might be a nice way to spend the evening. Is EatBar having a fight with its fishmonger, I wonder? Even my third time isn't the charm: When I eventually get around to sampling some oysters, the raw ones need every drop from their lemon wedge to wake them up, and the fried ones -- well, the fried ones are so tiny they disappear inside their packaging. The result is fried batter with essence of bivalve (and a snack that returns to the kitchen less than half-eaten).
Those quirks aside, there's plenty to admire about EatBar, and the charms begin in your glass. Here's a drinker's chance to explore a Malbec from Argentina or a ros� from Austria by the full or half-glass, from a collection of labels that fall under brief but helpful headings and look all over the map for inspiration. My only quibble is wine that occasionally comes to the table at a less than optimal temperature, but that's a problem in a lot of places. The liquid pleasures extend to the beers, which include a dozen (rotating) drafts.
Anda's menu appeals to caveman sensibilities, with lots of meat. As does every other new restaurant to open in the past year or so, this one serves a charcuterie and cheese plate. The burger is a good one -- thick, juicy and deftly seasoned with butter (which explains the richness) and herbs (which make for a hauter time). A toasted bun and butter pickles add to the sandwich's appeal. Slices of hanger steak come with welcome beefiness and a sauce boat of jus rich with red wine. Diners get a raw deal, emphasis on deal, with the chef's rousing steak tartare for $6: diced sirloin made creamy with aioli and ginned up with chipotle, garlic, capers and mustard. Garlicky bread crisps flank the uncooked meat and turn the plate into a snack worthy of Fred Flintstone. As the weather remained frigid late last month, I took refuge in a little skillet of sausage-stuffed pork loin, supported on buttery whipped potatoes and ringed with an intense dark sauce. The $14 entree was the picture of comfort and easy on the wallet.
The seeds and sprouts crowd gets some stroking with risotto fritters, served by the piece and affixed to their plate with a dab of tongue-teasing romesco; and with gnudi, thimbles of boiled (and buttery) ricotta cheese surrounding a pinch of wilted ra-
dicchio and lapped with a moat of taleggio cheese sauce. The fritters are crisp and fun; the dumplings -- Stonehenges in miniature -- are starchy and rich. There's nothing wrong with a late-winter parsnip soup that a demitasse couldn't fix. A few spoonfuls of the monochromatic root vegetable puree, which is served in a large bowl with diced apples in its center, go a long way. On the other hand, EatBar's house salad ventures beyond the usual toss to include shaved fennel and green beans in a mix that is also nicely dressed with a citrus-truffle vinaigrette.
The single most impressive dish involved (surprise!) seafood and a light hand. Perfect squares of tuna, edged in cracked pepper, were arranged on a garden of vegetables -- sweet baby carrots, diced cucumber, sharp radishes -- that had been tossed with a creamy ginger vinaigrette. The look was clean and elegant; the flavors made me glad I surfed.
If you're a single 30-something, EatBar is a tastier alternative than hanging around the produce section at Whole Foods to meet your match. But be warned: You'll want to show up early on the weekend for a chance at one of the too-few booths or bar stools. Things are slower on Sunday, which is why the lounge shows movies on a big overhead screen. But other days of the week help roust you from your couch at home, too. Tuesday features a tasting of wine, beer or spirits, and Wednesday invites patrons to bring in their iPods and play their contents for the crowd. The room looks as though it has been around for far longer than it has, a coziness achieved by dressing the space with light fixtures and furniture plucked from salvage shops.
Dessert wasn't an option on my visits. (By the time you read this, however, EatBar is expected to offer a handful of sweets from its sister eatery, Buzz bakery in Alexandria.) That's just as well. The food is pretty filling, and I'm inclined to return to the wine list for a dip into one of the 60 or so labels I haven't fully researched.