First-Class First Courses
Appetizers are noteworthy at this Bethesda mainstay.
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Jan. 27, 2008
Despite a sign hoisted high above the street -- visible from more than a block away -- and my having patronized Grapeseed at least half a dozen times during its eight-year run, I walked right past the wine-themed restaurant recently when I paid it the first of several return visits.
Credit the designer for my Mr. Magoo-like behavior. Following an extensive redo last fall, I scarcely recognized the place. New picture windows capture a softly lighted and greatly expanded dining room, including a front-and-center bar and party rooms to the side. Brightened with a colorful triptych and set with a communal table, the space, which retains its original open kitchen, extends its warmest welcome ever.
Like one of the newly svelte winners on "The Biggest Loser," the rethought Grapeseed is an inspiration.
So is the menu. Jeff Heineman, Grapeseed's 42-year-old chef and owner, appears to have been reinvigorated by his fresh surroundings. This was apparent shortly after the restaurant unveiled its new look in November and I stopped by. The first thing I popped into my mouth made a rousing impression: a trio of fried chicken livers garnished with scallions and accented with house-made pepper jelly. The golden casing was hot and crunchy, the center rich and creamy. What followed whisked me to Charleston for several bites: grilled shrimp on a pool of creamy grits that passed the Southern food test and got extra credit for its ring of sweet, smoky, whiskey-spiked barbecue sauce. Compositions such as these would look at home in such esteemed restaurants as Kinkead's and Cashion's Eat Place, in whose kitchens Heineman cooked before he set out on his own in 2000.
The other dishes I encountered that late-fall evening were pleasant but more predictable. A cassoulet was a bit soupy for my taste, and fettuccine tossed with roasted beets and goat cheese is something you could find in a dozen other restaurants.
Tip No. 1: Focus on first courses at Grapeseed. In fact, it would be smart to assemble a meal from just the appetizers. The menu changes with frequency, so I can't predict that everything I'm promoting will stick around for your visit. But, in addition to those chicken livers and shrimp and grits, you should hope to spot a martini glass of scallop ceviche. The seafood, swirled with bits of purple onion and minced carrot, is as refreshing a cocktail as you will find in Bethesda. Think all steamed mussels taste alike? Grapeseed's little black pot of creamy bivalves, showered with crisp bits of bacon and sweetened with minced onion, will change your mind. There's Belgian beer and cream in the broth, plus a shake of cocoa powder for more depth; dig down into the pot, and you'll hit fried potatoes, swollen with liquid yet wonderfully crisp. One of the few starters you can easily skip is the fried oysters, enriched but not improved by a tame butter sauce.
Every dinner included a dish in which a supporting element made the meal. One night, thin slices of pink pork loin and a nest of cooked spinach were nudged to glory with corn fritters in the shape of fish sticks. Crisp and nubby outside, the slender snacks broke open to reveal steam and bright kernels of corn. More! More! Another time, chunks of phyllo-bound cod were upstaged by a delectable base of steamed clams and spicy sausage coins that suggested a Portuguese influence. The cod and damp pastry were a little wimpy; their frame was fantastic, though, and the entree got a nice kick from lashings of lemony aioli. But more often than not, eating an entree here makes me wish I had stuck with another appetizer. As big and tender as it is, for instance, the lamb shank needs more personality; the menu promised gremolata, but there was faint evidence of the vibrant seasoning when I sampled the dish.
Tip No. 2: Take advantage of Grapeseed's wine program. Long before Sonoma, EatBar and Proof -- long before every other restaurant rewrote its menu to embrace half-glasses of wine -- Grapeseed was giving customers the options of splashes and tasting flights along with traditional six-ounce pours. The suggested wine listed under each dish on the menu takes away customer guesswork, and the pairings I've sampled -- a floral French gewurztraminer with those mussels, a softly spicy Joel Gott zinfandel with that pork -- have been sensible and fun.
The best place to sit depends on your party. Solo acts might enjoy the bar or the kitchen counter with its close-up cooking show. Couples with something important to discuss should request one of the intimate booths, although those diners better have flat stomachs -- the seating is that snug. Small groups should book the vaulted wine cellar, which looks like something you'd encounter in Napa or Sonoma but will be grateful to find close to home; kept at 58 degrees, the cave comes with chef's coats for anyone who asks. Money for redecorating appears to have run out in the back of the restaurant, however, where the glass-enclosed dining room does a great impression of Siberia. "It's kind of sterile," I overheard a woman at a neighboring table say, as both of us looked longingly at the activity in the room in front of us. (Noise alert: The hard surfaces in the main dining area throw a lot of sound around.)
As for the service, I was recognized as a food critic at least twice by the staff at Grapeseed. The funny thing is, being outed doesn't necessarily mean a reviewer receives better service; sometimes, getting recognized just means more service. And so it was that halfway through a Manhattan one night, a waiter snatched my cocktail and poured the contents into another glass. "This one's chilled," he said to explain the exchange of stemware.
Short of a splash of great wine, the best way to end a meal is with an elegant round of coconut cream pie, its sweetness cut with a vivid passion fruit sauce. Otherwise, desserts are uninspired. The best part of an upscale riff on a s'more, based on a chocolate brownie, is its fluffy marshmallow topping (unsinged by any flame), while a Key lime cheesecake tastes citric enough to remove paint.
Tip No. 3: Reserve a few sips of wine from your appetizer course. Skip dessert, and reorder a favorite starter. Chocolate cake is on menus everywhere. Chicken livers a la Grapeseed are dear.
Grapeseed Puts Out Its Sunday Best
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 14, 2008; Page F03
Jeff Heineman says he has no problem filling seats on Sunday nights at Grapeseed (4865 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-986-9592), in part because so much of his competition is closed then. On the other hand, he has noticed that his staff can get "stagnant" by the end of the week, which is why the chef of the wine-themed bistro introduced a four-course, end-of-the-week deal last month.
"I'm trying to spice up Sunday," he says -- for members of the kitchen crew, some of whom get credit on the menu for their handiwork.
Diners also are the beneficiaries of Grapeseed's new Sunday Supper, which changes weekly but typically opens with breads, dips and antipasti followed by pasta, a main course and dessert. The only choices customers make are their entree (from among four or so) and dessert (typically two). A recent dinner was built around crisp haricots verts tossed with pine nuts, artichoke-topped bruschetta, a zippy block of "Steve's" lasagna, "Adam's" tender and verdant spinach gnocchi, brassy blackened tilapia shored up with dirty rice and (whew!) an almond-and-date tart. (The pasta titles pay tribute to cook Steve Fela and sous-chef Adam Jakins.) For an extra $10, Grapeseed will throw in three tastes of wine to match the food. For $20, a diner can try the same wines by the glass.
The only complaint I have with the concept is one the chef says he's already heard: "Too much food." That despite entrees that are scaled-back versions of what the restaurant normally serves, what Heineman jokingly refers to as "Grapeseed Lite." He's considering making dessert optional and dropping the price of the meal to reflect that.
Heineman is also using the Sunday Supper to audition a potential new restaurant, an "Italian Tuscan steakhouse" with food served family style. "It's nice to have a place where we can do trial runs," he says. His ulterior motive works for us.
Sunday Supper, $35-$42 (depending on the entree).