An unexpected serving of drama
New chef steadies Food Wine & Co.
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, May 1, 2011
Francis Namin will be the first to tell you that getting Food Wine & Co. up and running in Bethesda has not been easy.
Representatives of the previous inhabitant, Uno Chicago Grill, didn't let the veteran restaurateur examine the space before
taking it over, Namin says, which meant "I walked in with my eyes closed." Only later did he realize there "was not a piece
of equipment [in the kitchen] I could use."
Making matters more challenging, Namin, who opted to be his own general contractor, lost one of two silent partners in the
He had chef troubles, too. Paolo Buffa, who signed on five months before Food Wine & Co.'s debut in September, departed in
January. Namin, who got his start in the business 17 years ago with Red Tomato, stepped in to run the kitchen while he simultaneously
considered replacements, one of whom, Carole Greenwood, the former chef at Buck's Fishing & Camping in Washington, lasted
a mere 48 hours.
For what the owner intended to be an "easy restaurant," with a neighborly feel and bistro pricing, Food Wine & Co. devolved
into something akin to a melodrama.
Michael Harr to the rescue. The chef, most visible locally during his tenure at the late Butterfield 9 in Washington, has
two months under his apron at Food Wine & Co. But in that short time, he has created a menu that does pretty much what Namin
always intended ("appeal to a mass crowd," says Harr, 34) and, with an eye on the future, allows easy replication.
So there are pizzas and burgers and mussels, and main courses averaging $20. But Harr also gets to have a little fun, and
reach out to food fans, with bar snacks that elevate the routine and entrees that involve some whimsy.
Given the game plan, you might anticipate deviled eggs. Those snacks at Food Wine & Co. are robust with dry mustard in their
filling and served three to a plate with butter pickles. Close your eyes, and you could be grazing at a picnic. From the raw
bar come three types of oysters that show off the skill of the shucker and a sense of humor on the part of the maitre d',
who follows their iced platter with doll-size bottles of hot sauce. But the opening munchies also include irresistible fried
artichokes, piled on a puddle of emulsified olive oil, egg yolk and lemon juice, and a bowl of fried peanuts that take an
Asian turn with crushed peppercorns and cinnamon in their seasoning and sesame seeds freckling their sticky-hot surface. Indeed,
the fryer gets a workout in this kitchen, which serves potato "tots" with a zippy ketchup and hush puppies delivered with
dilled honey butter.
The chef's "love and affection" for honey stems from his father, a beekeeper in Damascus, Md. The sweetener also sneaks into
the peppery caramelized pork blade (cut from the shoulder) strewn with arugula and crumbled feta.
As the region has been inundated with serious-minded pizza purveyors in recent years, the bar for what makes a great pie has
been raised. The pizza at Food Wine & Co., baked in a stone oven and dressed with the usual suspects, is satisfying enough
but not so compelling that you're fighting for the last slice with your mates. I like the billowy crust and the light application
of cheese, tomato sauce and fresh basil on the margherita.
Burgers have had a good run in the press, too. However, the routine sandwich at Food Wine & Co. is nothing to Yelp about.
Harr's juicy ribeye steak is. It's a pound of pleasure, cooked as you wish, served with a thicket of hand-cut french fries
that leave you wishing for more. If you want to pull out all the stops, throw in a side of creamed spinach. It floats too
much cream for my taste but comes with an inviting breeze from basil in the mix.
You'll find the right red to wash it back, thanks to an extensive wine list that lets you drink well up (especially) and
down the price scale, and from around the world.
A burst of steam follows the unveiling of a big pan of red curry mussels at the table. The theatrics continue in the eating;
curry leaves, lime, cilantro and toasted coconut are an exciting way to send off the tender bites of seafood. Rock shrimp
and scallops star in a pasta dish that fits in broccoli bites and a cream sauce enhanced with mussel stock.
Some of Harr's ideas could use some lightening. His seafood risotto is definitely a guy's dish, every swollen grain rich with
butter and Parmesan. While tasty, the scallops and rock shrimp hardly have a chance to be noticed. There's even less finesse
in the half roast chicken, bogged down by an avalanche of crushed nuts on the bird and a sludge of potatoes and goat cheese
underneath. An otherwise fine piece of rockfish is wasted on braised fennel and an almond pesto that sound better in print
than in the mouth.
The dessert menu was in transition on my last visit in April. I won't miss the too-sweet Key lime cheesecake, but I welcome
the hot-from-the-oven blueberry croustade. By the time you read this, another lure might be raspberry-rhubarb shortcake.
I appreciate the warm greens and browns that surround me, the windows with painted-on blinds, the generous space between
tables and the presence of salt and pepper grinders - so rare anymore - on the tables, though the high-ceilinged dining room
is plenty loud on weekend nights. The bar to the side, ringed by $550 leather stools, is a dashing place to sip the night
away. Name your poison and it's turned into a good cocktail.
Namin, who signed a 20-year lease for the location, says he spent $2 million to create "a look that would last." With Harr,
he's banking on enduring taste, too.
On the Waterfront
The chef last worked at Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, where he oversaw Moon Bay Coastal Cuisine and Old Hickory