Punk's Backyard Grill

$$$$ ($14 and under)

Editorial Review

Sietsema First Bite

Tom Sietsema wrote about Punk's for a First Bite column in May 2009.

The only design detail stopping Punk's Backyard Grill from convincing customers they're sitting outside is the ceiling above their heads. But even that is painted sky blue.

Live ficus trees fuel the illusion of an al fresco patio. So do the umbrella-shaded tables, wicker chairs, trellises and awnings that grace the young restaurant's airy, 88-seat dining room.

If the scene prompts flashbacks, that's the intention: The trio behind Punk's, which opened in February, aimed to re-create an all-American cookout, says Dave McCabe. He's the onetime manager of Oyamel in Washington who teamed with Sheila Laderberg, a former general manager of Marvelous Market on Capitol Hill, and Jeffrey Sloan, a San Francisco lawyer, to come up with "a place that didn't exist but would be familiar" to diners.

Chicken, shrimp, lamb and more sizzle to doneness on a large gas-fired grill behind a round booth wrapped in stainless steel and a glass window. A skewer of lime-and-garlic-marinated shrimp bedded on tossed greens and served with grilled flatbread and mango salsa makes a refreshing entree. Pulled pork could be more assertive, but we applaud the rest of the sandwich, including its fine bun and crunchy cole slaw. Salads prove generous and tasty; spinach decorated with smoked almonds, diced white cheddar cheese and paper-thin sliced pear looks like something you'd find in a place with a maitre d' rather than with a counter for placing orders.

There's a homey but also contemporary quality to a lot of the menu, which runs to creamy macaroni and cheese scattered with toasted panko (Japanese bread crumbs) and a bright Key lime pie. We are not surprised to learn that a serious chef is behind these and other recipes: Dean Maupin, the executive chef of the Clifton Inn in Charlottesville, who also trained the cooks here.

Punk's slips in lots of thoughtfulness. Beer, wine and house-made sangria help wash down a meal in style, and leftovers are packed using cups manufactured from corn, utensils created from potato starch and bags made of recycled paper.

If anything's missing from this indoor backyard grill, it's chirping crickets and maybe a summer breeze.

Sandwiches, $6-$8; grill plates, $8-$10.

(May 6, 2009)

Beizer Review

It's not easy to create atmosphere in a huge, impersonal space attached to a mall. Punk's has done so by bringing the outside in. The concept of a backyard cookout drove the menu creation and much of the decor. Stand in line to order next to a faux picket fence. Sit down to eat at a picnic table underneath an umbrella. Plants scattered throughout the restaurant encourage a game of make-believe -- even in the heart of winter.

The food helps drive the fantasy home. A steak sandwich piles tender meat, sauteed mushrooms and grilled onions atop a buttery roll smeared with a peppery sauce. The zippy mayonnaise in the coleslaw enlivens thin ribbons of carrot and red and green cabbage. (It wouldn't be a barbecue without potato salad and corn on the cob, so those sides are available as well.) And the salads are better than typical backyard fare -- a jumble of baby spinach, cheddar and rings of pear is a brilliant mix of salty and sweet. Beer, wine and cocktails round out the spread.

-- Julia Beizer (Feb. 19, 2010)