2008 Fall Dining Guide
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008
Out front, menus are stacked on lobster traps. Inside, weathered buoys dangle from the exposed ceiling. If you haven't figured it out, this sibling of (and neighbor to) the more formal fish-themed Hook also draws its inspiration from the water. Chef changes in the kitchen next door have not affected what's served in this minnow of a space: lobster rolls, fried and grilled fish, and sides that suggest a Southern supper, everything ordered from a counter in the rear. The clam chowder could use more salt, and the hot dog is no better than what you get off the streets downtown, but I admire the joint's frying and grilling skills, evinced in sweet, lightly breaded scallops and pleasantly smoky trout, respectively. Both dishes are good on their own, although patrons can dab them with one of Tackle Box's tasty house-made sauces. The best value is the $13 "Maine Meal," a choice of a fish, a sauce and two sides (go for the basil-walnut pesto, fresh-tasting coleslaw or paprika-spiked macaroni and cheese). There's no beer or wine to wash back your meal, but there are picnic tables to extend the illusion of eating al fresco.
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2008
Sound Check: 75 Decibels (Must speak with raised voice)
Every summer for the past six years, I have vowed to return to Maine for a lobster roll fix, and, every season, something gets in the way of my fulfilling that mission. I'm not going to Maine -- again -- this summer, but that's not as great a disappointment as before, because Maine has come to me.
If you've been to Tackle Box, the minnow of a seafood joint spawned by the more formal Hook next door, you know what I'm talking about.
Allow for a few caveats. There's no sand beneath your feet at Tackle Box or whiff of (sea) salt in the air. Admittedly, some of the choices on the menu would look out of place on the coast of Maine. But the Georgetown storefront does a respectable job of setting the scene and making you forget you're in Washington tourist territory.
Weathered buoys (thanks, eBay!) dangle from the ceiling, near a half-roof that helps frame the open kitchen. Picnic tables remind us that communal seating is not such a new phenomenon, after all. A sign near where sodas are dispensed looks as if it were lifted from a beach. "Swimsuits optional beyond this point," it reads. Meanwhile, the menu, written on a chalkboard, is updated to include market finds ("Just in: Grilled green beans") and embraces the South along with the New England seashore. Which means you can enjoy fried oysters, shrimp rolls and grilled fish with macaroni and cheese or sweet potato fries, as well as with coleslaw or regular french fries.
Tackle Box operates like a fast-food feeder, where customers place their orders at the kitchen counter and wait to hear their check numbers called. But it's personal enough that staff members might deliver your tray of food if they're not too busy, and check back to see if you like it.
In all likelihood, you'll nod yes. While that lobster roll is diminutive, it hits all the right notes. The filling is sweet with fresh lobster bound by just a whisper of mayonnaise, and the hot dog bun that supports it comes with a faint crunch from the grill. Pair the sandwich with the sweet, crunchy coleslaw that tastes freshly made, and you've got yourself a "roll" model.
I still think the fried clams at Kinkead's are the best in town, but I welcome the competition at Tackle Box, which are crisp and greaseless and best dunked in the super-lemony aioli. Close your eyes when you taste the trout cooked over oak and other hardwoods, and you'll imagine you're near a stream, close to a campfire. Amazing. I would have declared it the best catch on the chalkboard had I not also tried the grilled bluefish, slathered with a summery paste of garlic, parsley and basil that brought out, rather than masked, the taste of the fish.
The menu, crafted by Barton Seaver, the chef at Hook, is short, focused and "not about reinventing the wheel." His six or so appetizers are rounded out by a dozen or so entrees divided into two categories -- wood-grilled or "crispy" (fried) -- and a contingent of sauces and sides. The fish entrees, priced at $13, include two side dishes and a sauce. [Editor's Note: Seaver resigned from Hook after this column was published.]
The secret to those entrees' success? "We brine everything but the tuna," says Seaver, who also seasons the fried food with a house-made "red salt" that heightens the flavor of everything it touches. As at Hook, all the fish and seafood are sustainable. Tackle Box goes an eco-step further by using biodegradable plates, as well as utensils made from potato-based plastic.
Tackle Box is not a place to diet. I've yet to encounter anything fried that hasn't been delicious, be it the hand-cut french fries or the sweet, spice-dusted bay scallops. I can say the same thing about most of the sauces, which run from a brassy marinara to a breezy puree of basil and walnut, but also include a surprisingly timid tartar sauce. As for the sides, macaroni and cheese is both creamy and edgy (with paprika); roasted beets get a nice assist from lemon and herbs; and the potato salad is rich with sour cream. Grilled asparagus comes to the table smoky but dull.
You don't have to eat seafood to appreciate Tackle Box, which also grills hot dogs, chorizo and hamburgers. But to forgo fish or seafood here is akin to going to a Nationals game to check out the fashion. Why would you?
The desserts are all-American. They include a hot fudge sundae, a root beer float, a brownie a la mode and a blueberry pie. The last is usually on display at the counter and looks hard to resist, but its abundant filling deserves a flakier, more flavorful crust. The brownie is thick and pleasant, but frankly, I'd rather fill up on another side dish.
My biggest gripe is not about the food, but about what's not to drink; Tackle Box doesn't serve anything stronger than iced tea, a situation that Seaver says he hopes to remedy by summer's end. Stay tuned for a beer or two from Maine.