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Foodie Frenzy

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 31, 1998

  Richman Review

Turning Tables

New technology requires new etiquette. A diner at Greenwood whined impatiently to the waitress, "Can I get something to drink?"

The waitress replied, "Absolutely. I was waiting for you to get off your cell phone. I didn't want to interrupt your conversation." – P.C.R.

Modern technology is not always a blessing. After Greenwood at Cleveland Park had been open for eight weeks, I made a reservation in a friend's name on the restaurant's answering machine. Somehow chef/owner Carole Greenwood figured it out. She called me and asked me to postpone my visit. She complained that the restaurant was too busy, the staff had turned over, there were problems with the kitchen and with the service, she hadn't had time to develop the menu.

I always hold off a few months before I review a restaurant, in hopes that it will be stable by then. But readers want to know about new places, and a review takes several weeks to get into print. The timing is a balancing act. I reminded Carole Greenwood that I'd already waited and that, after all, the restaurant was charging full price. If the dining room was too busy for her to cope, she might cut back on the reservations she took. Instead, she was determined to pack the weekends with two seatings a night; callers couldn't get reservations between 6:30 and 9 p.m. No 8 o'clock dinners here.

Greenwood is one of the most loved and hated restaurants to have opened in recent years. It's one of the most popular. This chef has found her true home after bouncing from restaurant to restaurant, then opening her own with a misguided almost-vegetarian menu in a dreary downtown mall. Now, in Cleveland Park, she's located among financial backers and an enthusiastic audience, though the raves have been tempered by complaints, mostly about service, prices and the slow pace of the kitchen.

I had been hearing both sides of the story for two months, by phone, mail and e-mail. I decided it was time to judge firsthand.

Dinner began with a dish of olives and a tall basket of long, crisp breadsticks nearly as thin as toothpicks. Nice to crunch while contemplating the wine list, which is so interesting and reasonable that it alone is enough to endear this place to the neighborhood. Where else can you find a bottle with considerable charm for as little as $16?

Even though Greenwood had guessed I was coming, the entrees that night were a disaster. I loved the soup, a steaming broth of arugula, spinach, leek and fennel, green as a Christmas tree under its topping of sweet, vinegary red beet salad. And the oysters were as sharp, briny and wonderful as any I've had in Washington. But we left our main dishes largely uneaten and nibbled away at the thin, crisp fries that came with the chicken. This brined and roasted bird is as controversial as the chef. While I'd heard raves about it, that night it was tasteless and juiceless. My guest's highly touted halibut was largely raw and sinewy. Though the waiter offered to have it cooked more, we'd both lost our appetite for the fish by then, and just ate its mushroom polenta. A tart and crunchy strawberry-rhubarb crisp was a happier ending than we expected, given the second act.

That first visit, we'd been seated in the back room, which struck us as bare and claustrophobic, its windows set high in the back wall. I saw a more appealing side of Greenwood on my next visit. I was seated up front, surrounded by sunny yellow walls, at a curved banquette illuminated by graceful iron lamps and sconces. The decor is spare, but the place was filled with the hubbub of Cleveland Park food talk: "Are there fried lemons tonight?" "How about if you order the asparagus and I get the oysters?" This is the kind of place where first-timers come with lists of their friends' recommendations, and repeat customers make suggestions to their neighbors. Then all proceed to critique each bite as if they were going to have to supply a final score with their credit card.

Once again, Carole Greenwood was at her best devising appetizers. I'd make a meal – frequently – of the house-smoked salmon stack, an ethereal pink and gold pyramid of herbed phyllo layered with silky salmon and creamy avocado, all framed by asparagus spears and chives and scattered with lemon zest and feathers of dill. It's utterly lush. Tempura crabs were light and crisp and pearly moist, though their wasabi dip was violent. Warm mushroom salad had a woodsy richness, despite being overwhelmed by vinegar.

I found the steak – a Summerfield Farm sirloin – to be one of the best, juiciest and most flavorful hunks of meat in town, the match of any you'd find in a steakhouse. It comes with classy mashed potatoes, nicely fat and spicy onion rings, and plump asparagus. Once again, though, a seafood entree that sounded luxurious disappointed me. Lobster-scallop cakes, made with chunks of seafood, were dull and bound with gummy bread. And here, too, the entree was outshone by its accompaniments – mashed potatoes with celery root and a refreshing dill and cucumber salad. In light of my other seafood experiences, it was a pleasure to discover plain old mussels blossoming in a broth that tingled with lemon and garlic, with boiled new potatoes an ingenious device for absorbing those flavors.

On my visit, I could have (and should have) made an entree of the cheddar fondue, lumpy with bits of unmelted cheese and shreds of surprisingly mild fresh horseradish. It was deliciously attended by slices of green apple and tiny boiled potatoes for dipping. This fondue is hefty enough for two, and admittedly the platter of colorful vegetables that make up the bistro salad for two is a more sensible beginning.

While the chicken had improved by my third visit, the grilled salmon, cooked nicely and obviously fresh, seemed lifeless in a swamp of white beans with a tough, chewy mushroom tamale.

For dessert, Greenwood lists the culinary equivalent of a knock-knock joke: "Happiness, $12.50." How long will the waiters – or diners – be able to stand hearing the smirking "What is Happiness?" I'll save you the tedium. "Happiness" is an assortment of all the desserts. Given their richness, you might conclude it's a misnomer. Just the chocolate espresso bar is enough dessert for anyone. It's like double-concentrated fudge, so intense that the whipped cream is needed to lighten it. The chocolate pound cake must weigh several pounds; its thick chocolate sauce could stand as an indulgence on its own. And there's more – crème brulee, fresh fruit, a crisp or cobbler.

Greenwood is eccentric, unpredictable, alternately delightful and frustrating. This restaurant tempts me to join the dialogue, to warn my neighboring diners to proceed cautiously among the fish dishes, to encourage them to spring for the steak or to try the mussels with potatoes. I'd urge them to order an appetizer each and share an entree rather than vice versa, or to consider making a meal of the fondue. Greenwood is a quirky restaurant, and it deserves its opinionated public.

Greenwood at Cleveland Park – 3529 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202/833-6572. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Sunday 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Monday. AE, MC, V. Reservations required. Separate smoking area. Prices: appetizers about $6 to $11, entrees $13.95 to $26. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $40 to $60 per person.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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