Almost worth the wait
Wildly welcomed bistro needs a little work
By Candy Sagon
Sunday, March 27, 2011
It's obvious by the crowd squeezed into the tiny waiting area and clinging to the few seats at the cramped bar that Cabin John has fervently embraced its newest restaurant, Wild Tomato.
Tucked into a small strip of shops on MacArthur Boulevard, Wild Tomato is cozy: space for 45 people, max, inside and about 15 more outside, once the weather warms up. It was opened just three months ago by chef Damian Salvatore, who also owns Persimmon in Bethesda, but word has spread like a viral video that the neighborhood finally has a nice sit-down place in the space where a lackluster pizza counter used to be.
The decor is minimal; the walls are adorned with oversize framed portraits of artichokes, cabbages, a pumpkin and some squash. During our recent visits on a couple of bone-chilling nights, the two flat-screens played an endless loop of surfers riding sun-dappled waves.
The bar at the back of the restaurant has six stools, an appealing selection of wine and a bartender who makes a great Bombay Sapphire martini: dry, three olives. Sipping that martini slowly is especially important if you come on the weekend. Wild Tomato takes no reservations, and there is almost always a wait for dinner. The only time we didn't languish in line was for Sunday lunch at 1:15 p.m., and maybe that was just a fluke. By 3, there was at least a 20-minute wait. (Oh, and people, it doesn't help getting all cranky with the hostess. She's doing her best.)
Salvatore, 46, says he focused on Cabin John because he has relatives who live nearby and he likes the area. Since the day the restaurant opened, "it's been everything we hoped for, although it does get a bit crazy on the weekends," he says. His customers are mostly locals: "Some come three or four times a week."
As a father of three, Salvatore says, he wanted a menu that would make both youngsters and parents happy. Thank goodness, that does not mean bland chicken fingers. There is a selection of great pizzas, a hefty burger and a $5 side of white, creamy mac 'n' cheese that will pass muster with most little diners (and big ones, as well).
Yet, while I understand its neighbors' enthusiasm about having more options along a stretch of MacArthur Boulevard that has offered sandwiches, sushi and not much else, I'm not 100 percent in love with Wild Tomato. The service, while earnest and friendly, is often amateurish; the kitchen can be frustratingly slow, even on a less-than-packed day; and some entrees on the short menu need work.
The New Orleans-style barbecued shrimp tasted sharply of iodine when we had it on our first visit. Our burger on another visit was dry and overcooked. Ditto for the desiccated pork tenderloin, topped by an overly sweet dried fruit compote. The only thing that kept the tenderloin from being a complete disappointment was the creamy polenta and braised kale that came with it.
In fact, there wasn't a vegetable we tried at Wild Tomato that wasn't stellar. Take the mixture escorting the pan-seared salmon. Yes, the salmon was moist and perfectly done, but the real reason for ordering the dish is the bed of tiny French green lentils and mushrooms beneath the fish. They are, in a word, stunning. Salvatore says he could have used cheaper, softer brown lentils, "but if there's one thing I hate, it's mushy lentils." The tiny, dark French ones are firm. Their skin almost pops when you bite down on them. Add the musky, earthy flavor of the mushrooms and the drippings from the salmon, and it is like an outfit where the purse outshines the dress.
Also deserving of love: the fish tacos. A generous serving of crisp fried tilapia is nestled in warm, soft tortillas with spicy coleslaw and velvety guacamole, all drizzled with chipotle-infused mayo. Chips and fresh pico de gallo come on the side. It's a dish that comprises all the things Salvatore likes best: contrasting textures (crunchy/creamy) and sneaky heat (chipotle in the sauce and another peppery kick in the slaw).
Speaking of an unexpected peppery whack, order the Smokin' pizza. The thin, chewy crust supports bacon, smoldering chorizo, marinated peppers, mushrooms, smoked mozzarella and what appears to be your run-of-the-mill tomato sauce until you take a bite. The kiss of chipotle that wasn't apparent to the naked eye is readily obvious to the naked tongue. It's not incendiary; it's just like a flash of heat that lights up the other flavors. We had planned on saving some to take home but couldn't stop eating.
Two underappreciated dishes deserve mention. First, the chopped salad. Salvatore revisits what has become a sodden, fatty mess at too many places and transforms it back into an actual salad. His version starts with tender pieces of roast chicken and adds a boatload of fresh, crunchy vegetables: two kinds of lettuce (romaine and iceberg), cukes, bell peppers, radishes, tomatoes, red onions and carrots. Best of all is the sharp Dijon vinaigrette that pulls it together with a sophisticated, mustardy punch.
And where does the chicken for that salad come from? Why, it's the same excellent bird that's served as an oven-roasted entree with irresistibly buttery mashed potatoes and green beans. I loved the seasoning on the chicken's crisp skin but couldn't quite place what it was. As is typical with Salvatore, there was a not-so-subtle kick to the spices, but something else was familiar about it. When I asked him later, he laughed. "It's Old Bay. I'm a Chesapeake guy. I got the idea when we were at the beach." But of course he couldn't resist a spicy tweak: "I added some hot, smoked paprika."
Wild Tomato doesn't have a pastry chef, so Salvatore says he chose desserts that wouldn't be overly complicated for the kitchen to make. There's a jumbo frosted cupcake, big enough for two to split. It's cute, I'll give it that, but the cake part is dry and uninspiring. Also in the cute-but-vapid category: the chocolate cream pie martini. Served in a cocktail glass, it features a layer of chocolate crumbs on the bottom topped with chocolate mousse and a pouf of whipped cream.
But my lack of enthusiasm for the desserts is a lesser concern. What I'd really like is to see Salvatore speed up service and even out the food at this rough little gem of a restaurant.
Now, that would be really sweet.
Which item on Wild Tomato's menu does chef Damian Salvatore like the most? The chipotle-zinged Smokin' pizza: "I eat it every single day, and I'm still not sick of it."