Big Doesn't Mean Better
Be prepared for huge portions and lots of noise at Overwood
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Aug. 12, 2007
At Overwood, the waiters flash ear-to-ear smiles, the noise at peak hours forces you to repeat the punch line to your joke three times and a plate of herbed roast chicken arrives with so many french fries that you have to wonder if Idaho is giving away its most famous export.
Bring your earplugs and an appetite. Overwood can be overwhelming.
At least that's the way I remember my last visit to this spinoff of the popular Boulevard Woodgrill in Arlington: a Saturday night outing that was most memorable for screaming children, crowded plates and a satellite dining room (Siberia lives!) whose windows look across a narrow pathway and into a dress shop. To be fair, at earlier meals -- on other days and in other dining rooms -- the scene was more attractive and less frenetic. But three visits gave me a next-time-I-dine-here strategy: The choice places to land are in the open and airy front area, which embraces a bar, and in the rear, with its entertaining view of an open kitchen. The dancing flames of the busy grill support the neighborhood restaurant's theme: Much of the food here is cooked over wood. (Catch that?)
This is not a menu that will leave anyone scratching his or her head and wondering what a gastrique or a savarin is. (For those of you dying to know, a gastrique is a glaze made by reduction; a savarin is a rum-soaked yeast cake filled with cream or fruit.) Overwood, which replaces the late Ecco Cafe, is all about what's familiar to even the infrequent restaurant-goer. Hence, there are fried calamari, steamed mussels and Caesar salad to start, and ribs, lasagna and meatloaf to follow.
It's easy to imagine a committee of hungry frat brothers coming up with ideas for Overwood. The calamari looks like several appetizers cohabitating on one plate. A mountain of fried food, it includes the obvious along with onion strings, a sprinkle of corn and sliced jalapeños. The heat, the sweet and the grease are fun and filling. Another decadent ode to the fryer is a stack of crisp green tomatoes, each slice slick with a combination of runny white cheddar and piquillo peppers that gushes out on contact with a knife. A single fried shrimp gives the architecture a hint of glam.
Overwood also serves pillowy toasted ravioli, fat with mozzarella cheese and kissed by a light tomato sauce, and bruschetta that no discerning Italian would recognize. Here, giant slices of plain toasted bread are canvases for a multicolored spread of green (olives), white (cheese) and red (sun-dried tomato). It's the sort of snack you'd throw together with bits and pieces from your cupboard if unexpected guests dropped by, neither offensive nor impressive. Lighter is not necessarily better. A salad here is apt to induce sleep -- a few slices of beet on some underdressed greens scattered with cheese crumbles is BOR-ing. And the mussels, while abundant, are gathered in a broth that needs more salt (its red peppery heat is nice, though).
Some diners see big portions as added value: tonight's dinner pressed into service as tomorrow's lunch. Others -- and I include myself in this camp -- would rather pay less for less. Besides, when the dish is only okay to start, a bigger portion only emphasizes its inadequacies, which is one reason main dishes sometimes take a back seat to appetizers.
A little more attention to detail in the kitchen would whisk the hanger steak from a yellow light to a green one. The meat is tender and juicy, and flanked by some of those great skin-on fries, but its enhancer of tamarind and soy sauce is too sweet. Blackened swordfish is notable for its kicky crust, corn relish topping and garlicky mashed potatoes, but the fish itself was overcooked when I tried it. Lamb shank has only size to recommend the entree, which is blah despite its scattering of braised minced vegetables. A fat square of vegetable-lined lasagna is just fine, though, and "skinny" chicken is a winner in every sense. A tangy lemon sauce livens the sauteed chicken breast, which is pounded to flapjack thinness and shored up with a bed of basmati rice that gets a boost from sun-dried tomatoes.
Overwood is best for the less obvious. The restaurant's wine list provides a role model for neighborhood restaurants, offering out-of-the-box choices and sipper-friendly prices (most of the bottles are $30 or less). Among the charms are a quality Chilean pinot noir for $28 and an Australian sangiovese for a dollar more. But the restaurant goes beyond just listing labels. The wine list is smartly organized, starting with light-bodied wines and ending with heavier choices. And it offers descriptions of each that actually enlighten diners.
Desserts are a kitchen's last chance to make an impression, and chances are good that you'll leave Overwood smiling. It's hard to order the Elvis pie with a straight face, and harder still to resist its junkyard dog allure: a filling of crunchy peanut butter, whipped cream, fresh bananas and both caramel and chocolate sauces riding an Oreo crust. Except for the panna cotta, which shoots (flavor) blanks, the endings are respectable versions of crowd-pleasers. My favorite desserts rise from buttery graham cracker crusts and go easy on the sugar. Key lime pie has welcome tang (and crushed hazelnuts in its base), while cheesecake proves dense and creamy.
The wood floors, bare tables and brick walls that make the place noisy also make it easy on the eyes. And the servers, busy though they may be, clearly want to please. So do the restaurant's owners, who offer $9.95 (skirt) steak dinners on Monday and half-price bottles of wine on Tuesday. The kitchen has some catching up to do with the rest of the experience, but ordering right -- think something fried to start, maybe chicken and pie to follow -- goes a long way toward improving the odds.