By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, March 13, 2005
No sooner do I step inside Oakville Grille and Wine Bar in Bethesda than I'm struck by a sense of deja vu. The feeling is prompted by the restaurant's spare good looks and sustained by allusions to California and even the typeface on the menu. A fanciful Caesar salad, its spears of romaine served upright in a "vase" of crisp phyllo, also rings a familiar bell as I watch it land on a nearby table.
And then I realize why: Oakville Grille has Mendocino Grille written all over it -- or at least the Mendocino Grille I recall from when the Georgetown restaurant was owned by Charles Lenkin. The restaurateur, who also owns Geppetto's in Bethesda, sold Mendocino two years ago and subsequently created this fresh place last summer. He installed it where part of Geppetto's dining room used to be; now the same building holds Oakville Grille up front and Geppetto's in back.
It's easy to see why his latest venture is filled with ladies who lunch by day, and those ladies and their dates by night. Oakville's service is accommodating, the food tends to be pretty, and the subtle, cream-colored setting doesn't try to compete with conversation. Little niceties pop up here and there, too: Wines by the glass are offered in two sizes, and the menu supports the game plan of patrons who are trying to shed weight with the help of Atkins. "Low carb diet watchers may substitute available greens for starches," reads a note at the bottom. The moist raisin bread nestled in the bread basket will nevertheless tempt those dieters to stray.
Seafood will encourage diners of all stripes to return. The crab cake is distinguished by its lightly seared crust and generous portion of crab brightened with minced red bell pepper; the appetizer is nicely rounded out by finely shredded cole slaw flecked with mustard seeds. Calamari arrives in an airy fried batter with dips traditional (cocktail sauce) and modern (cilantro-laced mayonnaise).
Those warm-up acts are followed by equally engaging main courses from the water. Salmon is of the wild variety, and tastes like it. The fish is also thickly cut and dressed to thrill, with a scattering of toasted almonds for some crunch and a sauce that tastes first of citrus, then of mustard. Red snapper is cooked to a crisp turn, then bedded on a delectable hash of potatoes and leeks, with a vivid orange pool of sauce suggestive of red peppers and paprika. Smoky from the grill, rockfish could be a contender, too, but it is dragged down by undercooked fingerling potatoes, a dense and salty spinach flan, and a sweet corn vinaigrette that seems more like a dessert topping.
Oakville Grille, it turns out, is not a consistently good product. If something has even a remote chance of being sweet -- such as an appetizer of vegetable dumplings -- it will be. Sometimes it appears the chef isn't tasting his food before it leaves the kitchen. A special of spinach soup seemed to be just vegetable and cream, not a hint of seasoning more. Braised beef ravioli, another first course, is as exciting as its color -- boring beige. The pasta, served with a sweet wash of meat juice, cries out for an herb, a dash of salt, something to wake it up.
The top of the menu offers an ode to Oakville in California's Napa Valley, "with its rolling vistas, fine restaurants and wonderful wines," but that blissful image doesn't carry over into every aspect of the Bethesda dining room. The wine selection speaks to big industrial producers, including Gallo, and big markups even for lower-tier wines, such as the Sutter Home white zinfandel that goes for $26 a bottle. A few nice choices are tucked in among the lot, like the 2001 Chappellet chenin blanc, but not many. And it doesn't help that the red wines are consistently stored at too warm a temperature (a problem in some of the best restaurants, I'm sorry to continue to find).
There are other curious shortcomings here, most notably the pizza. Slivers of dry chicken and juicy but bland tomatoes cover a dull round of baked dough on one of my visits; at another meal, porcini mushrooms, fontina cheese and some fresh herbs do their best to compensate for a crisp but otherwise indifferent crust. The surprise is that the pies come from the same kitchen used by Geppetto's, which has long been popular for its brick-oven-baked pizzas.
With one sybaritic exception, meat dishes are best sidestepped. I'd order the grilled beef tenderloin again only for its accompaniments -- buttery whipped potatoes and glistening green beans -- as the centerpiece itself is flat-tasting. Roast chicken is no better or worse than what's served at a lot of places; like that beef, the chicken is better for its escorts, in this case carrots and potatoes. With my eyes closed, it would have been tough to tell that another entree was lamb; the meat had so little flavor, it could have been just about anything. There was no question about its sauce, however, which was unpleasantly sweet and smacked of having been poured from a can. A recent special of veal Oscar, on the other hand, merited permanent resident status on the menu. The pleasure started with a base of succulent veal tenderloin and continued with a layer of crab and a curtain of bearnaise sauce, rich with tarragon and butter. A crown of shoestring potatoes sent the dish off the decadence charts. If only it had more competition here!
Desserts lean toward conservative choices. "Chocolate caramel cake" sounds dreamy but appears to be missing one of its adjectives (the caramel proves elusive). Creme brulee is a sure bet, however, and carrot cake arrives moist and spice-redolent beneath its thick cream cheese frosting. Both desserts are big enough for two.
My four trips to Oakville Grille and Wine Bar suggest that the restaurant is meeting California only halfway -- and they provided me with a helpful game plan: Stray from the water, and you risk disappointment; stick with fish, and the sailing is smoother.