First Bite: Shab Row Bistro in Frederick

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 7:29 PM

The stroll from door to table at Shab Row Bistro, which takes its name from its neighborhood in Frederick, sets up expectations.

Enter through the rear entrance, and the first thing to catch the eye is a wine shop stocked with several hundred labels. The display segues to a zinc-topped bar lighted by handsome lamps, which flows into a 50-seat dining room made cozy with walls in soft yellow, dark red and eggplant. Jazz stirs the air; linens dress the tables (as do individual butter knives, a nice touch). If you drop by at lunch, as I did not long ago, light streams through the big front windows.

The scene is inviting.

The menu reads like a collection of French comforts (duck confit, bouillabaisse) with a few American crowd-pleasers thrown in. Hence, a meatloaf sandwich at lunch.

Michael King, one of three co-owners, calls the combination shop and restaurant "new for Frederick; a different idea." His partners in the business, which opened in late May, are Jack Clark, a former lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the District, and Clark's wife, Lindsay, an information technology director. King, who doubles as the chef here, comes to Shab Row Bistro from Finn & Porter in Alexandria, where he was general manager.

I'd like to report that his French onion soup is a role model, but the bowl's thin broth, minimal onions and cap of blond cheese distance themselves from the classic. Clam chowder has very few minced clams and too much underseasoned cream. Even sorrier is the cassoulet, which does a great imitation of a vegetarian casserole. We dig and dig and dig for any sign of meat and come up with just a morsel of shredded pork. The dish is mostly crumbs and beans, a fact we point out to our waiter, who takes the disappointment off the bill. As for the steak tartare, capers and minced onions do their best to give the cake of raw beef the boost it needs.

Yes, I'll have another splash of wine (thoughtfully available in two- and six-ounce pours).

The crab cake makes me smile. Served on a glossy, lightly toasted brioche bun, the centerpiece combines crab, seafood mousse and egg white. A pinch of fennel slaw is tucked inside the sandwich for texture, and a pail of warm golden french fries appears on the side. Cooked in duck fat, the potatoes make luscious companions to the crab cake: a meal that should keep better company.

221B N. East St., Frederick. 301-631-8102. Lunch entrees, $14 to $17; dinner entrees, $18 to $34.

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