Restaurant review: Clarendon's American Flatbread puts accent on local flavors

By Justin Rude
Friday, May 28, 2010

At a glance: Vermont-based American Flatbread has found success with a very simple formula: unpretentiously serving up a menu of pizzas and salads with a focus on locally grown and sustainable ingredients. Sticking close to that formula worked for Scott Vasko when he opened the area's first American Flatbread in Ashburn in 2007, and that's the plan at the newest location in Clarendon, which opened in October. At the core of the restaurant, both figuratively and literally, is a wood-fired clay pizza oven that, in a tradition going back to the first American Flatbread in Waitsfield, Vt., is built by hand on-site from local clay. That the lovingly crafted oven looms large in the restaurant's open floor plan should allay the fear that there is anything beyond a branding connection between the food cooking within it and the American Flatbread frozen pizzas available at Whole Foods.

On the menu: Unsurprisingly, the restaurant's focus is on flatbread pizzas, with a set menu of nine varieties that will be familiar to patrons of the Ashburn location, and two specials each week. The flatbreads themselves are thin with a crisp bottom while still having a nice amount of chewiness. For such a well-balanced crust we can thank chef Evan Buchholz, who mans the aforementioned clay pizza oven and dreams up the specials based on whatever fresh seasonal ingredients are on hand that week. The specials, one of which is vegetarian, are always worth a try, often featuring more adventurous flavor combinations than the regular pizzas. Of the permanent pies, two are standouts: the Punctuated Equilibrium (a favorite from the Vermont flagship's ovens), which contrasts salty kalamata olives with sweet peppers and smooth goat cheese; and the New Virginia Sausage, which uses caramelized onions and sun-dried tomatoes as supporting notes to showcase Bluemont farmer Steve Baker's pork sausage.

The menu offers a modest selection of salads and appetizers. Uncluttered salads such as a fennel and orange option with almonds and goat cheese reflect American Flatbread's philosophy of using simple presentations to highlight the freshness of the ingredients. It's a style that suits Buchholz just fine. "I've never been in a restaurant that's been able to be this fresh," he says. "We prep daily. And it lets us have the open floorplan. We have nothing to hide."

At your service: Though there is a bar in the front of the house that offers a full menu, the focus is firmly on maintaining a comfortable feel in the dining room. Vasko is not conflicted about his casual and easy vision. "This is a neighborhood place," he says. "We close early; we don't want to be a gin joint. If you come in after work in a suit, you should feel comfortable sitting down with people who just came from the gym."

What to avoid: The antipasti plate features sopressata and salami with Parmesan, olives and marinated vegetables but feels like a flat afterthought when presented next to the crisp salads.

Wet your whistle: Clarendon Hearth features a robust list of American craft beers, and as with the rest of the menu, location is of the utmost importance. Mid-Atlantic breweries dominate the list, with healthy selections from Heavy Seas, Flying Dog and others. And the Hearth boasts that it is the only location in Arlington to serve Dogfish Head's 90 Minute IPA on draft. In fact, beer is a big enough deal to American Flatbread that Vasko and Buchholz have begun hosting monthly beer tastings, inviting breweries and preparing a special fixed menu to pair with them. The first three tastings sold out well in advance.

Bottom line: The Clarendon area is hardly starved for dining options, but by offering creative flatbread pizzas and a deep craft beer menu in a family-friendly dining room, American Flatbread may have found a comfortable niche in the crowded market.

American Flatbread's Clarendon Hearth 1025 N. Fillmore St., Arlington Contact: 703-243-9465 or Hours: Monday- Thursday 4:30-10 p.m., Friday: 4:30-11 p.m. Saturday noon-11 p.m. Sunday noon-9 p.m. Prices: Appetizers and salads $4.99-$9.99, flatbreads (intended for two) $11.99-$21.99. Wheelchair access: Good. Kid-friendly: The restaurant has plenty of highchairs, and there is a flatbread recommended as a kids' favorite. Service was patient when I dined there with my toddler.

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