It's Downhill at Blue Ridge
* 1/2 (out of four stars)
Sound Check: 65 decibels (Conversation is easy)
Barton Seaver is the darling of the sustainable-fish movement, a board member of D.C. Central Kitchen, a culinary collaborator at Sonoma restaurant on the Hill and a principal in the Diamond District Seafood Company, a restaurant coming to 14th Street NW. Next year, he's expected to reach an even wider audience, as the host of a forthcoming food show on PBS.
Is the chef overcommitted? It sometimes tastes that way at another of his interests, Blue Ridge, which opened to breathless fanfare in June but quickly spurred a stream of online rants.
Count me among the disappointed diners. I had greatly enjoyed Seaver's cooking at the fish-friendly Hook in Georgetown and was surprised, even a month after launch, to find myself pushing away some of the food he and his charge, chef John Murphy, were offering at Blue Ridge in Glover Park. A joint venture with Sonoma owners Eli Hengst and Jared Rager, the restaurant was envisioned as a rustic fusion of the mid-Atlantic and the South. Consistent with the politically correct mind-set du jour, the banquettes in the dining room are reclaimed church pews, and the aim is to buy as many ingredients within a 100-mile range as possible. Bare knotty pine tables and quilts on the walls erase whatever memory anyone may have had of the Thai restaurant, Busara, that came before.
Does the recipe sound familiar? Blue Ridge is riding a ripple of new restaurants with Southern accents. It was preceded on the scene by the General Store, serving fried chicken and chess pie in Silver Spring, and Eatonville, a tribute to author Zora Neale Hurston, in the U Street corridor.
Informal is the watchword at Blue Ridge, which forgoes bread baskets for bags of popcorn. Seaver thinks it's a fun way to start a meal, and he's right. The snack, delivered by plaid-clad servers, immediately sets a relaxed tone and prompts a guessing game among tablemates: What's the seasoning? The sweetness comes from brown sugar, a server tells us, but paprika and oregano keep the popcorn from becoming dessert.
You can jump right into appetizers or start out with lower-priced "snacks," including roasted almonds, deviled eggs and, my favorite, house-fried potato chips served with a charred-onion dip reminiscent of the stuff some of us baby boomers used to whip up using Lipton onion soup mix. More au courant: the Barackwurst, three spicy, locally made pork sausages poised on a pool of minty yogurt. The most Southern notion, sweet potato fritters, sounds enticing, but the fried marbles turn out to be pasty in their centers, with an aftertaste reminiscent of underdone doughnuts. No, thanks. And I finally found a beet salad that I can take a pass on. This version comes with a thick gray swipe of blue cheese on the plate rather than chunks or crumbles.
The best appetizer is one of the more basic ones, and also vegetarian. Grits are shaped into two patties, rolled in cornmeal and panko (Japanese bread crumbs), then deep-fried to crisp the surface but keep the inside somewhat creamy. Mushrooms, rich with wine and herbs, dress up the warm cakes, transforming something simple into something sublime.
Fish is what propelled Seaver to local fame, and fish is a sure path here. Trout comes with a citrusy brown butter sauce and a scattering of pecans. Novel? No, but it's plenty pleasing. Salmon demonstrates one of the chef's restaurant habits: "I read a menu from right to left," Seaver says, meaning he focuses more on the embellishments that come with the centerpiece. After all, the chef says, "salmon on a plate is salmon on a plate." Unless, of course, it's dressed up as it is here, with crisp green beans that smack of the garden and a chunky pesto that's the taste equivalent of a warm summer breeze.
Like Seaver, I tend to pick my proteins based on the starches and vegetables that accompany them. Much as I enjoy pork, it was the promise of grilled greens and peach chutney with the chop that prompted me to order the entree at Blue Ridge. The accouterments are delicious (the black kale, slightly crisp from the fire, particularly so), and the chop is as thick and juicy as a pig lover could hope for.
The vegetable potpie sounds promising. Four small rosemary-buttermilk biscuits provide a top crust, a clever idea that gets erased by your first taste of the filling. It's a pale-yellow glue that is not quite solid, not quite liquid and definitely a waste of good vegetables. The only reason to order the hamburger is for the garlicky tangle of french fries accompanying the beef patty, which tastes oddly flat, even if you order it with goat cheese. Summery cherry tomatoes and toasted bread are a match made in heaven, except when the bread resembles Pepperidge Farm white: bruschetta by way of North Dakota.
The service is up and down, too. You can get neighborly or tentative attention from the young waiters at Blue Ridge. One night's easy charm and smooth delivery might be followed the next visit by an overzealous server who gives you two seconds with the menu before trying to take your order, asks about your meal when your mouth is full -- and waits and waits by your side until you're finished chewing to get a response -- but then forgets to refill wineglasses.
Which leads me to throw in some praise: Blue Ridge practices what it preaches with the liquids as well as the solids, thanks to the efforts of wine director Brian Cook. It's a treat to find some good area wines on his well-designed list, including a crisp Church Creek Oak Chardonnay from Virginia's Eastern Shore and a gently peppery cabernet franc from Jefferson Vineyards in Charlottesville. About half of the bottles are priced under $50; nearly 20 wines can be explored by the full or half-glass.
Root beer fascinates Seaver. His menu features six varieties of the brew, and he's aiming to offer 13 eventually. Throw into the mix the restaurant's three ice creams, and a diner could one day find himself facing 39 combinations of root beer floats. For now, I'm content sipping Natural Brew root beer from California with scoops of vanilla ice cream. But my preference at meal's end is a slice of pie, because a good pie is a rare find. The blueberry is the best, followed by a not-too-gooey pecan, both supported by a butter-rich crust. Apple pie, on the other hand, was dry the one time I tried it.
The pricing at Blue Ridge suggests that it's the right restaurant for the times. The dining room, which extends to an outdoor patio, looks like a place you could see yourself cozying up to on a regular basis -- if only the food were more consistent.
I can think of a quick fix: More TLC from the guys in the kitchen.
Open: lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. Brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Major credit cards. Street parking. No smoking. Prices: Snacks and appetizers $3 to $11, entrees $10 to $23.