First Bite: The Liberty Tree in Northeast

By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Pizza was what he was known for rolling out at the original Matchbox in Chinatown, and pizza is what chef Graig Glufling is serving anew at the Liberty Tree in Washington's Atlas District.

The pies the chef is baking these days are thinner, however, and they're sliding out of a gas oven rather than one fueled by wood. And this round, Glufling, 36, is a partner in the business, along with Scott Hamilton and three others. Together, they form the Hamilton Restaurant Group. (The group's other establishment is Hamilton's Bar & Grill on Second Street NW.)

Glufling and Hamilton, who both hail from the Boston area, figured this city could use more culinary representation from New England. That explains the clam chowder and a lobster roll that's "near and dear to my heart," says Glufling, who spent two years cooking on Cape Cod before he came to Washington in the late '90s to work at Red Sage (since shuttered). The business partners' shared roots also account for what might be my favorite pizza topping combo: baby clams, roasted garlic, herbed butter and bacon bits strewn over a crisp crust and aptly named Cape Cod Casino.

The ocean is a safer bet than the farm, judging from a few other dishes on the concise menu. In the flavor department, a salad of seared tuna and white beans tied together with an assertive black olive vinaigrette surpassed dense, overcooked pork loin with wintry cabbage and apples.

Launched in March, the Liberty Tree is a reference to an elm tree in Boston beneath which some American patriots protested the Stamp Act in 1765; metal stars and a copy of the Declaration of Independence on yellow walls reinforce the theme. A perch at the bar lets diners watch their meals being made. Framed by blue curtains, the counter looks right into the kitchen.

Stay tuned for some sky and (real) stars with your lobster roll. The owners intend to unveil an outdoor patio in the alley separating their 46-seat restaurant from the neighboring Methodist church this summer.

1016 H St. NE, 202-396-8733; Entrees, $13-$16.

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