Making its mark out in Olney
GrillMarx fills a void with steaks, seafood
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Oct 30, 2011
If it's Wednesday and you're in Olney, do yourself a favor and stake out GrillMarX Steakhouse & Raw Bar. That's when the new restaurant with the goofy name lists clam chowder on its menu.
Campbell's Soup should take notes. The recipe at GrillMarX starts with heavy cream, clam juice and fish stock, and comes to the table with thyme, diced Yukon Gold potatoes and what appears to be a bay's worth of tender minced clams. The secret, besides all that good seafood? "My fiancee is from Massachusetts," says chef Doug Kellner, a three-time graduate of Johnson & Wales University. (He got his master's degree in 2009.) My bowl goes back to his open kitchen looking as if it had just emerged from the dishwasher, and this is coming from somebody who rarely finishes any dish he orders, lest he begin to look like a contestant on "The Biggest Loser."
From the parking lot of the Fair Hill Shopping Center, GrillMarX does not appear to be the sort of place you'd net a homey chowder. The facade evokes a suburban sports bar, an impression that the noise inside reinforces but that the design challenges: The mix of leather perches, brick arches and wine displays is more masculine than macho. The place seems to be filling a void in its community. On a recent Sunday night, not one of the restaurant's 128 seats appeared to be unoccupied.
The menu emphasizes comfort food served in portions that suggest today's meal could also be tomorrow's. In tough times, a slab of properly grilled meat and a baked potato the size of Idaho beckon even those on expense accounts. Everything is familiar. Nothing is too trendy, unless you think fiery Sriracha has no place on a puddle of grits supporting totems of pork loin. (I dig the color and the heat imparted by the stripes of Thai hot sauce.)
Ribs as an appetizer? Why not? The crusty meat is flattered by a sauce that ricochets from sweet to heat to sting; factor in its patch of tasty french fries, and the snack becomes a feast. Tortilla chips are light and warm and served with two condiments: a bright salsa and a heavy spinach dip that will look familiar to anyone ordering the creamed spinach side dish. Keep in mind the raw bar you saw near the host stand when you're ordering starters: Oysters on the half-shell and plump shrimp go down easy. The kitchen does not toss a convincing Caesar salad, however; the steakhouse staple is sullied with arid croutons and dull lashings of cheese.
The equal to the clam chowder at GrillMarX is the roast chicken. It is stuffed with garlic and herbs, rubbed with fennel seed and salt, and taken for a ride on the rotisserie, emerging every bit as succulent as the seasoning suggests it might.
The beefy section of the menu features six or so steaks, some served naked, others sauced. Rib-eye marinated in Kona coffee, sesame oil, garlic and ginger makes for some joyful slicing; the 14-ounce cut also has on its side char and juiciness. I am less enamored of the New York strip, which was grilled as we requested it, and left the heat with a fine crust but had no complexity. Prime rib is available in both 10- and 16-ounce portions.
Anything that originated as a tuber should be considered as a plate mate. On the other hand, macaroni and cheese yields an odd tang, and that creamed spinach turns out to be a glop of cheese and garlic.
General Manager Michael Nagy has worked the rooms at Morton's and Smith &a Wollensky, among other area restaurants. His experience reveals itself partly in a wine program that offers more than 20 wines by the glass and 10 labels by the half-bottle. A nice bridge between surf and turf is the 2009 Chehalem 3 Vineyard pinot noir, with its hints of black cherry and pepper.
Not all the sizzle comes from the kitchen. Do the servers have to be an 8 or higher to be hired? It appears that way at GrillMarX, where the dashing young women and men do a mostly stand-up job of guiding you from cocktails to food to check. I say "mostly," because there ought to be a rule cautioning waiters (everywhere) from answering customer
requests with "No problem" and asking diners if they're "finished working" on their food. No request should be a problem, ever. And as far as I'm concerned, animals might "work" on their food, but people don't. (If two decades of listening to restaurant-goers has taught me anything, it's that a lazy choice of words can leave a sour taste in diners' mouths.)
The army of cooks in baseball caps, visible behind a picture window separating kitchen from dining room, pay attention to a lot of the small stuff. They cut those french fries by hand, the sauces are made in-house, and genuine whipped cream garnishes the satisfying creme brulee. And the bar does justice to classic cocktails.
Established by Maryland restaurateurs Andy Leach and Eric Cheadle, both of whom count Houston restaurants on their résumés, GrillMarX was designed with expansion in mind. "Our model is three in eight years," says Leach, and to "keep going north" with the concept, although "that could change." This Washingtonian wouldn't mind having its chowder, its chicken and its Manhattans a little closer to home.