Casual, cheap and delicious, Surfside will appeal to the hungry and the hard-pressed alike
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Nov. 2, 2008
Sound Check: 75 decibels (must speak with raised voice)
It's almost as if David Scribner peered into a crystal ball and saw what was coming. Just before all hell broke loose on Wall Street, the veteran Washington chef opened a self-service restaurant with a beach theme and a menu stacked with dishes with mass appeal. When the headlines became more urgent and the economic news took a turn for the worse, Scribner was ready with comforting soups, fish specials no higher than $16, a sunny palette and reggae from his personal collection of tunes.
If ever we needed a great, cheap steak taco and some cheer, now is the time. And this is the place.
Scribner, 40, comes to the project with 18 years of cooking experience, starting with a place in Nantucket and continuing in Washington with strong showings at Felix in Adams Morgan, Smith Point in Georgetown and Dahlia in Spring Valley. It's a team effort, actually. Surfside brings the chef together with his business partners at Jetties, the popular sandwich purveyor in Foxhall Village, whose casual vibe the restaurateurs hoped to replicate here.
They've succeeded. Surfside is big and airy, with entrances on two sides and a rooftop deck dressed with mosaic tables. Red brick alternates with green and blue paint on the walls; fans swirl from ceilings that seem to disappear into the sky. Downstairs is like being outside, thanks to all the light that pours through the windows and to a fetching beach mural. Painted by Cassandra Loomis, a local artist who works at Trader Joe's in the West End (who knew?), the water scene is so vivid that you almost imagine yourself to be part of it. (An emergency-exit light in the middle of the scene spoils the illusion.).
Only a grump could find fault with the setting.
Is Surfside loud? Well, yes. Naked tables, an open kitchen and a crowd of hungry college students and area worker bees will do that to a place.
Is it good? "I can't wait to come back," one of my more discerning dining companions announces after he polishes off some steak tacos, a.k.a. Cabo San Lucas. No ordinary version, these showcase hanger steak marinated overnight in garlic, herbs, olive oil and soy sauce. Included in the package: velvety poblano peppers, pungent cilantro, rich guacamole and a fluffy scoop of tomato-tinted rice and beans. An entree billed as Tahiti -- meaty swordfish, a pillow of rice and grilled pineapple -- packs in a lot of flavor, too. Lemon zest and a gingery green curry add spark to the assembly, which finds room on the plate for delicate snow peas.
This isn't just dinner; it's a vacation. And those tacos and that grilled fish have plenty of competition for your appetite.
There are no servers. Instead, customers grab a sheet that lists standing choices and check off what they want, as if they were in a sushi parlor, or study the chalkboards for whatever specials Scribner has dreamed up that day. At the counter next to the gas grill and some fast-moving cooks, including Scribner, diners receive a pager after placing their requests. Soft drinks are available from a help-yourself cooler; stronger stuff can be ordered from a small bar in back.
Get some chips. They're light, warm and full of corn flavor, served in a beautiful bowl nearly as big as a hubcap. The dip choices are all terrific. If I'm feeling fat, I opt for the zesty salsa. If I skipped the elevator to climb the stairs at work, I reward myself with fresh guacamole or lavalike white cheese. And if I want something more substantial, I get soup. Surfside's meaty chicken-with-corn soup is like having Grandma cook for you.
The portions are generous. The vegetarian quesadilla, for example, bulges with sauteed spinach, meaty mushrooms, caramelized onions and two kinds of cheese. Three times I've told myself I was taking home leftovers, and three times I've ended up cleaning my plate. Fresh food, simply prepared and thoughtfully staged, has such an effect. It would be easy for Scribner to decorate all of his entrees with the same sides, but he doesn't. Unlike the beef tacos, for instance, the shrimp tacos, or Nevis, are delivered with yellow rice and a spicy pineapple salsa.
I'm reminded how much I've missed Scribner's work whenever I try one of his specials. He grills fish like the pro that he is -- over high heat and not too long -- and its partners on the plate are not the usual suspects. A thick slab of swordfish shows up with a dynamite salad of cherry tomatoes, corn and blue cheese, and a beautiful bar of salmon is piped with a pesto that would taste at home in Italy. There was plenty to admire about the salmon alone, but the fish was framed with fresh tomatoes in three shades, warm almonds and green beans that snapped with every bite.
Down the road, Scribner says, he plans to add dishes from his past -- chicken pot pie a la Smith Point, brisket as he used to make it at Felix -- to his specials menu.
"This is like a restaurant," a friend says as he watches plates go by. He was referring to both the high quality of the cooking and its support. Though the cups are plastic, the plates are china (and stylish), and the silverware feels heavy in the hand.
Flaws don't hit you in the face here, but they make cameos. Take the napkins, which are wimpy. Maybe it was foolish of me to ask the bartender one night for a Manhattan (don't ask; it had been a very long day), a cocktail he told me he wasn't sure how to make. A subsequent question about which red wines were being poured was met with a curt "pinot, merlot and cab," as if a rundown of their producers wasn't news I could use. (Surfside offers five reds by the glass.) Beer is more in the bartender's comfort zone, and you'll get it faster if you're in a demographic that is young and female.
Scribner, who grew up in the area and says he recognizes the faces of more than a few customers, says his latest gig is meant to be "fun for me and fun for the customer." Fun -- and fast and fresh -- it is. Surfside also happens to be the right restaurant at the right time.