Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner daily 6 p.m. to midnight, brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Prices: Main dishes at lunch average $4 to $7, at dinner $8 to $20. Full dinner with modest wine, tax and tip about $25 to $40.
Aiming for the top--the top pastrami, the top steak,
the top open grill, the top Georgetown environment--
Wall's Grill has brought news to Washington, but the news is mixed.
The best news is pastrami and Polish sausage from Katz' of Houston Street in New York. This is cured meat of bite and spice and bursting juices, and for Washingtonians the sandwiches ($4 to $5) or platters ($6 at lunch for a mixed platter, $8.75 at dinner for grilled sausages; pastrami not on the dinner menu) are a cultural experience as well as a gastronomic one. They are also a cultural shock: a pastrami platter on a bed of lettuce?! And the bread we won't even speak about (though the onion and pumpernickel dinner rolls make it on flavor if not on texture). So now Washington has real pastrami.
But Wall's is meant to be more than a deli. It has a huge expanse of old brick with abstract paintings and a window panorama of M Street. It has an immense charcoal grill wafting smoky aromas though the dining room (and eye-stinging smoke if you are seated nearby in the evening). It has palm-green tablecloths with Lucite salt mills as well as pepper mills on them. And in the evening it has a three- piece combo, the sound of which almost soothes the pain of the prices.
Wall's Grill also has short but very interesting menus that vary throughout the day: Sunday brunch with smoked fish; 'scrambled eggs custard'; and potatoes, cheddar cheese, tomatoes and peppers, or apples fried with onions. At lunch and dinner the appetizers include fresh salmon caviar, Gasp,e Bay smoked salmon, oysters or clams heated on the grill, pasta, chili, and--only at dinner--that lovely thin-sliced raw beef known as carpaccio. Main dishes at dinner are steakhouse stuff: grilled beef or shrimp, spareribs, lamb, fish, chicken, liver and veal. And a few are repeated for late-night entrees.
Apparently Wall's Grill buys carefully. The smoked salmon is gently smoky, firm enough and sliced thin enough. The salmon caviar is just lightly salted, and bursts to the bite. The smoked trout is moist and pearly pink. The shrimps are large, the beef well marbled and the liver--a thick steak--pale and delicate. The plain food is good food. While the New York strip may not be, as the menu promises, 'the best steak in Washington,' there is little to fault it for except that no local beef has as much flavor as the aged beef of our dreams--and our memories.
Once past the purchasing, Wall's performance is more erratic. Sometimes the cooking is wonderful: a seafood pasta with juicy cubes of swordfish and salmon, wedges of fresh tomato and mushroom, in a cream sauce full of peppery surprise. That was at dinner. At lunch another day, the pasta with tomato sauce and slices of Polish sausage (that blended about as well as an afterthought), had the kind of stewy taste that one associates with steam-table food. And the chicken salad was more like apple-celery-nut salad lightly seasoned with chicken. The potato salad was lost in mayonnaise and mushy anyway, the slaw tired, though still pretty with its red and green cabbage contrast. And what was billed as Philadelphia Hoagie with Brooklyn Bread must have been mugged on the way down. A nice sharp vinegar dressing was a mere Band-Aid to the crumbly sog of a roll and the tasteless meats and cheeses (Katz may know his pastrami, but his salami is fatty and flaccid).
That's not the worst news: brunch is. You'd better start with a mimosa even if it does cost about $3, for you'll need to be fortified against the dried-out, cold 'scrambled eggs custard.' The fried eggs were equivalent to those you'd find in any short-order grill, and the thin breakfast steak, once we trimmed the fat, was just fine. But the fried cheddar with onions was a gummy mess, just soft greasiness. And dessert--at lunch and dinner as well-- offers only berries, Haagen-Dazs ice cream or a pretty but definitely not dazzling chocolate or hazelnut cake for $3.50. At brunch what looks like a reasonable price--say, $5 or $6-- quickly adds to $15-plus, once you fill out your morning with a drink, coffee and dessert.
Central to Wall's Grill is, of course, the grill. The chef looks dwarfed by the grid expanse and the thick slabs of meat; it is quite a show, with all its spitting and flaming. In fact, it is too much of a show. A serious barbecuer knows that the flames need to be quelled so the meat cooks by smoke not by soot, but this chef lets them blaze away. He has, however, turned out perfectly timed steaks and liver crusty-brown and just warmed at the center. Another 'nice touch' that has its drawbacks is the array of mustards offered with meats. The choice is tempting when the waiter brings deli, German, dijon and horseradish mustards. But what's mustard doing on a good steak? Only the Polish sausage benefits from the addition. And in fact, the otherwise excellent carpaccio is ruined by a sharp mustard sauce that would go better on a hot dog.
Even vegetables have their ups and downs, and a tentative conclusion is that they are better at dinner, when Van's Potatoes, deep-fried and then seethed in parsley-garlic butter, are freshly steaming and crusty. Spinach in vinegar may not be to everyone's taste, but it is a punchy idea. French peas, which the menu says cost $3.50 and the waiter says are canned, can be readily ignored. Of course, what is a steakhouse today without potato skins? It's not Wall's.
A few words about wines are called for here. Wall's tries, after a fashion, in the wine department. Its list is fairly extensive, as one would expect, knowing that proprietor Van Wall has been a wine writer. And some of the California selections, particularly, are cannily chosen. There is a Stag's Leap '74 cabernet sauvignon, even in half-bottles. There is an intriguing late harvest zinfandel, though it is too sweet before dessert and the desserts at Wall's hardly tempt one to team them with a wine. There is a Davis Bynum pinot noir that is very good, expecially for a pinot noir. But then there are the prices: hardly anything appealing under $20, and over $40 for the likes of Ch.ateau Montalena. No wonder nearly everyone I saw at dinner was drinking beer or glasses of house wines (which sound good on the waiter's tongue but don't taste good in the glass). And the house wines aren't even available by carafes. One would have hoped that a wine man of Van Wall's experience would have priced his list more sensibly to encourage drinking wines that enhanced his food.
Ah, well, Wall's Grill has a way to go. Itszideas are sound and attractive, its environment--sunny by day, candlelit by night and always with a Georgetown sparkle--magnetic. Wall's Grill seems to know what people want. It just isn't quite giving it to them yet.