First Bite: The Chesapeake Room on Capitol Hill

By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The name out front and the decor inside shout "seafood." But fewer than half of the dishes at the Chesapeake Room on Capitol Hill involve oysters, crabs or rockfish.

That's intentional, says owner Xavier Cervera. With his latest restaurant, a 1,100-square-foot slip of a thing, he hopes to show patrons there's more in the region to celebrate than what swims in the water. As in, bison from a ranch outside Baltimore, pork and chicken from farms in Pennsylvania and wine from vineyards in Virginia.

Designed by Cervera, the narrow 40-seat dining room packs in a lot of personality. The oil paintings on the indigo walls reflect various aspects of area life, from oyster rakers in the Rappahannock River to duck hunters on the Eastern Shore. Behind the bar, rich with curly maple, hovers a 350-gallon fish tank that's so heavy it requires an iron framework "that could support a Volkwagen," says the restaurateur. Italian leather distinguishes the stools and booths. Another 40 seats grace the patio to the side, where ceiling fans keep it from becoming a furnace in hot weather.

Cervera found his chef, Robert Wood, in Savannah, where Wood had cooked at Georges' of Tybee, an upscale American eatery. Figuring "everyone does a crab cake" here, the self-taught 32-year-old created a twist on the classic in which fried green tomatoes play the role of the bun, and a crab salad, whispering of basil, stands in for the usual patty.

The appetizer was the (savory) standout of a recent dinner that included a satisfying bison burger served with chunky, mustardy potato salad; marinated and smoked oysters that smacked too strongly of smoke; simple roasted rockfish; and a pork chop that had been left too long on the heat (it was overcooked). Not a crumb remained of the chef's dreamy cheesecake, presented on a graham cracker crust spiked with candied ginger.

Cervera owns two other places to eat and drink on Barracks Row: Molly Malone's and Lola's Barracks Bar & Grill, which is named after his late mother, also a restaurateur.

Soon he'll have even more on his plate in the neighborhood. First up is Senart's Oyster House, which will be a reincarnation of an establishment of the same name at the same location (520 Eighth St. SE) that operated from 1913 to 1939. It will feature a 45-foot-long oyster bar, will serve gumbo and pork chops and will have a New Orleans vibe, says Cervera, who is aiming for a December launch. After that, he wants to open an even bigger concept: a combination smokehouse, bakery and wine venue offering sandwiches, charcuterie and cheese plates. Yet to be named, the multi-purpose business is targeted for winter 2011.

501 Eighth St. SE. 202-543-1445. Main plates, $13-$25.

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