Editors' pick

Woodmont Grill

American, Burgers, Seafood, Steakhouse
$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

Easy to Like and Easy to Get To
Woodmont Grill is a welcome addition to downtown Bethesda

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

I like Woodmont Grill even before I set foot inside. Anyone who has ever attempted to find a convenient parking spot in downtown Bethesda is likely to embrace it, sight unseen, too. Right next to the restaurant is a big parking lot and a smiling attendant, waving customers to available slots.

All for free!

It gets better. Friends and I stroll into the place to find a hostess who looks as if she's genuinely glad we've chosen to eat here. She, in turn, passes us off to a waiter who is as fresh-faced as a choirboy but also smart as a whip. It's not even the weekend yet, but Woodmont Grill lets you play make-believe by posting a trio of jazz musicians near the bar.

Live music, every night of the week!

At this point, the restaurant could serve nothing but water and would win your affection. The establishment formerly known as Houston's (and owned by Houston's parent company, the Los Angeles-based Hillstone Restaurant Group) pays serious attention to the sometimes-overlooked details that determine why you choose one restaurant over another that's similar.

The menu isn't extensive. If you're not up for a burger, a salad, a piece of fish or a slab of beef, Woodmont Grill may not be your first choice for lunch or dinner. (Another reason to appreciate the restaurant: It's open throughout the afternoon.) But what the kitchen does, it tends to do well, and, frankly, quality whets my appetite more than quantity.

Some of the starters read like "Mad Men" props. Spinach-artichoke dip, anyone? Woodmont's recipe sidesteps the usual glue and allows the vegetables to shine. Heaps of chips surround the snack, making it a good launch for a gaggle of diners. There is cheese toast, as well: warm pillows of ciabatta with a patch of melted white cheeses and chopped parsley on top. Moving up the luxe scale, smoked salmon on toast points beckons.

The garden gets credit for my favorite special, offered not long ago: tomato salad assembled from among big and tiny, red and yellow tomatoes and English beauty cucumbers. Simple and colorful, it was sprinkled with crumbled blue cheese. Summer on a plate. Woodmont Grill's Caesar salad comes without eggs but with a touch of brown sugar in its dressing. It's fine. But my preference is for the zesty house salad, which one-ups the typical toss of greens by including carrot, egg and bacon.

While certainly family-friendly, Woodmont Grill feels like an adult playground. The lighting, which comes by way of table lamps, is muted. The booths, covered in red, are a throwback. The patio is a swell place to find yourself on a balmy night, but the interior comes with a dash of old-school romance. Is it my imagination or does every head at the bar swivel when a member of the opposite sex walks by? Woodmont is the offline version of Match.com. Helping to lubricate the scene are well-made cocktails, among them smooth Manhattans and tart margaritas. When I learn from a bartender that the latter are made with sour mix, I start to decline. "We do it here," she reassures me, "from scratch." The effort shows.

The kitchen follows a similar conscientious path. Its crab cakes are lightly crisp and mostly seafood, their only flaw erased by a dash or two of salt. The accompanying coleslaw is green with parsley and scallions, and sweetly fresh. Hamburgers are under a tremendous amount of pressure to dazzle customers these days. If you like your sandwich on the homey side, you'll appreciate the soft patty and the sesame-seed bun that come off this grill. And from the fryer emerge thin potatoes with bits of skin clinging to them for added flavor. The fish sandwich is a mess to eat, and you should budget for dry cleaning, but it's a real catch. Crisp grouper, red onions, Thousand Island dressing and a home-baked bun make it so.

Could the grilled salmon use more seasoning? It could. Otherwise, the entree is nicely prepared and served with a nutty wild rice salad, sweetened with raisins yet balanced by a curry vinaigrette that nudges the ubiquitous fish from routine to rousing. Similarly, roasted half chicken is a big bird, flavored from the inside with rosemary and garlic, that gets further lift from fluffy, nutty couscous. Prime rib is as cooked as you like it to be, and plenty thick.

The ample portions might preclude considering dessert, but one night, the waiter won't take no for an answer. I protest when he shows up with a big dish of Gifford's vanilla bean ice cream, candied pecans and a sauceboat of warm Scharffen Berger chocolate. One bite in, however, I catch a second wind, as do my supposedly stuffed tablemates. The competition for that last bit of space in the stomach also includes a tangy Key lime pie supported by a nut-laced graham cracker crust and made richer with whipped cream, gratefully restrained in its sweetness.

Woodmont Grill isn't a particularly imaginative place to eat. Nothing is "deconstructed," and your chance of seeing a mushroom foam or basil ice cream is as slim as my excuse for polishing off that sundae. But by taking a few basic needs into consideration, and despite its narrow focus, the restaurant quietly distinguishes itself.