For those of us who live to eat, 2013 will go down as one of the most appetizing years in recent memory. Fourteenth Street NW has hogged most of the ink and the bandwidth, with the debuts of such standard-bearers as Etto, Le Diplomate, Doi Moi and Kapnos, but other neighborhoods share credit for burnishing the Washington dining scene as well. No sooner did it open its doors this fall than Rose’s Luxury became the best place to eat on Capitol Hill, and Daikaya improved the odds of getting a good meal near Verizon Center with two fine menus under one roof, one devoted to ramen, the other to upscale Japanese pub fare. By the time you read this, Iron Gate Inn should have made a comeback in Dupont Circle, with ace chef Tony Chittum at the stove.
The crush of so many fresh subjects to write about means I’ve had less time to keep tabs on restaurants that have fed food fans for a while, which is a long way of congratulating Buck’s Fishing & Camping on the occasion of its 10th anniversary in October.
A decade might not seem like a long time to most people; for those of us steeped in the industry, however, 10 years is practically middle age. Among the constants in its picture have been Buck’s signature blood-red walls; its (truly) prime dry-aged New York strip steak; and owner James Alefantis, 38. The restaurateur retains the boyish charm he has always had and mixes easily and gleefully with the many notables — Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, White House Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard — who add sizzle to the American restaurant, a Cafe Milano for boldface names who care about good food.
There’s probably nothing you haven’t heard of on Buck’s short menu, but there are few local kitchens that do its familiar dishes better.
I’ve munched on fields of onion rings over the years, but few plates compel me to get to the bottom like the one at Buck’s. The snack appears too white to have been fried, but sure enough, the crisp rings in light coats of beer batter have been expertly cooked. They’re great alone, sensational after a dunk in smoked pepper mayonnaise, a detail that underscores how the kitchen distinguishes itself is small ways. A fist of cool iceberg lettuce is dressed up with the usual garnishes — crumbles of smoky bacon and blue cheese — but sets itself apart from the pack with a creamy, horseradish-sharpened dressing. Butternut squash soup is, frankly, boring in contrast. Did anyone taste the bland bowl before it went out? Roasted almonds tossed with fresh rosemary, on the other hand, is a nibble I plan to put out on my coffee table at my next dinner party.
“World-Famous” precedes that steak on the menu, and while I might not go that far, the $39 entree is a terrific piece of meat that picks up lots of flavor from being cooked over wood and comes flanked by potatoes that are, as any good chef knows, fried twice to make them crisp. (The poor man’s version here is the steak frites featuring an eight-ounce culotte for $19.) I’m just as happy eating the bone-in pork chop, with meat from a farm on the Eastern Shore that grows its own feed for the pigs. A side of fresh, barely creamy cole slaw makes the grill-striped main dish even more compelling.
James Rexroad is only the fourth person to helm the kitchen. Like his predecessors, including the memorable opening chef, Carole Greenwood, he opts for good sense over high style. Rockfish gets framed in basil-laced cranberry and kidney beans, while plump roast chicken is brightened with lemony pan juices. Both dishes are more about ingredients than a chef showing off.
The single meatless entree sounds like a page from the original “Moosewood Cookbook,” hearty and retro. But quinoa bulked up with sauteed mushrooms, wilted chard and a beautiful poached egg on top pleased even the dedicated cavemen at my table with its nutty nuances and gentle but persistent heat from serrano oil.
I can easily pass on chocolate. The flavor is seldom my thing, except at Buck’s, where I always order a fat slice of the chocolate buttermilk cake, which comes with a glossy drape of chocolate sauce, added just before serving, and a dollop of fresh whipped cream. My mom makes a similar comfort, moist and not too sweet. Whatever fruit is in season might be turned into something quietly wonderful, too. Recently, there was apple crisp, which I like because the fruit remains the focus.
Looks matter to Alefantis, who also heads the board of the Transformer gallery. Over the bar hangs a fetching riff on Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”; the oil-on-linen nude was painted by former Washington artist Lucy Hogg. A sense of intimacy comes by way of glass-blown amber lights over the 20-foot-long poplar table that runs down the center of the dining room. And yes, after all these years, there’s still a canoe displayed in the rafters.
Alefantis says he’s as close to a “Buck” as you will find at Buck’s. The name lends a sense of folksiness to the establishment, while “Fishing & Camping” is a subtle way of promoting the restaurant’s commitment to locality. (To the owner’s amusement, he says he gets the occasional call from people inquiring about fishing licenses.)
The staff tends to be relaxed and smart and swift. Nour Bouzarda is first among equals, not just because the Morocco native makes me feel as if I’m eating in his home but because he has the gift of reading a diner’s mind. Unlike the servers at too many hot spots, Bouzarda comes across as honored to have you rather than making you feel privileged to have him. Plus, he makes excellent wine recommendations.
The restaurant scene is ablaze with new stars. Buck’s testifies to the allure, and the value, of patina in the firmament.
5031 Connecticut Ave. NW.
Dinner 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
PRICES: Appetizers $8 to $14, main courses $14 to $39.
75 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.