DEVON BAR & GRILL 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 833-5660
Open seven days a week for lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., for Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Reservations recommended. AE, V, MC, CB, DC. Prices: Appetizers $2 to $7, main dishes at lunch $5.25 to $12.25, main dishes at dinner $11 to $25; oyster bar fare averages $5 to $7; Sunday brunch main dishes $7, buffet $12. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $35 a person.
A circus of a restaurant has come to town, having played Atlanta and Kansas City before traveling to Washington, New Jersey and Boston. Devon Bar & Grill is on three floors, a series of Victorian dining rooms with an exhibition kitchen at the top, oyster bar and cafe below and "outdoor" tables in its mall. And live Dixieland music knits it into a three-ring happening.
Underneath it all, Devon Bar & Grill is a seafood restaurant, with a New Orleans theme and a mesquite grill, those being the culinary trends of the moment. And while it is a dazzling environment -- a cross between The Foundry and Georgetown Park or maybe both intertwined -- it has a way to go if it hopes to be taken seriously as a seafood kitchen.
Clearly Devon fills a need, for the place seems always to be packed. There is little competition in its immediate neighborhood (except for the famously good hamburgers at Bon Apetit carryout), and Devon is handsomely appointed. Furthermore, it does a lot: There is light snacking at the oyster bar and caf,e tables, a happy hour and brunches -- both buffet and a community center for local singles. You could order a bay shrimp cocktail or calamari salad for $3 to $4 or a full and pricey dinner.
The problem is that Devon does a lot but a lot of it badly, as you could guess by watching the grill, which is in full view of the dining room. One evening the chef was pouring on spices with abandon, turning and turning the fish as flames shot up around it. The food that night was dreadful, the blackened redfish so intensely seasoned it seared your mouth (whereas properly made, blackened redfish is itself seared to crustiness), and it was so overcooked it bounced back to the touch. Walleye pike and swordfish were both overcooked to dryness and seasoned with so much paprika and assorted spice -- as well as sooty from the grill -- that you couldn't taste the fish. Only the porterhouse steak was the least bit pleasant, though it lacked crustiness and juiciness. Side dishes ranged from beige rice with an astringent taste, a baked potato brown on the inside as well as outside, to perfectly good fresh broccoli, creamy fresh coleslaw, overcooked but freshly fried shoestring potatoes and boiled new potatoes.
At lunch the food was better on several visits, though it rarely rose above ordinary. The salmon was moist and cooked just right, with the seasoning much more restrained so that the fish and the mesquite could be tasted. Several times, though, the fish have tasted less than fresh, at best devoid of flavor. A boneless, skinless chicken breast took equally well to the grill, with a slight crustiness and plenty of juiciness. In fact, the grilled foods at lunch have been more carefully cooked and judiciously seasoned.
Spiced shrimp are fresh ones (on most days) with a lovely plump juiciness and delicate flavor. But their spicing seemed to be little besides pepper, and not much of it; they even lacked salt. Scampi saut,e, another appetizer, were aswim in red-tinged and garlic-scented oil, perfectly decent; and calamari salad was sprightly and tangy.
Steamed seafoods are less reliable; littleneck clams one day were big and chewy, and most hadn't opened. Mussels another day were only nine to a $5 order, and one hadn't opened. Further disappointments were fried calamari, dripping with grease and the batter falling off, and raw oysters that were small and flaccid and littered with shell. Oysters are also baked rockefeller style, with a thick puree of grassy spinach, or Devon style with crab and tomato- tinged bearnaise, a much better production. Seafood pan roast, the bar's specialty, was a little bit of nicely cooked seafood in a sea of dull pink sherry-sweetened cream. The soups also needed work, the clam chowder with a tinny taste and the creole gumbo mild, thin and stocked with little but sausage. Salads are big productions here, but something needs to be done about the heavy-tasting, heavy- textured dressing; and I don't understand how you are supposed to eat salads constructed from huge whole leaves.
One should not expect much of the sauces, whether a pecan sauce or a cajun sauce on the chicken or a marinara sauce with the calamari. There seems to be no guiding sensibility -- tortellini have been bland and sludgy, potatoes florentine have been half-raw; sometimes everything is intensely seasoned and other times left bare of taste. The food ranges from decent to dismal but is never dazzling. Desserts are supersweet: a chocolate pie, a pecan pie, a chewy and dry hot apple tart, tired-tasting torte. The drop biscuits served before the meal -- crumbly, soft, and slightly sweet -- could be sandwiched with strawberries and cream for a better dessert. At brunch buffet there was a delectable bread pudding with whiskey sauce; on the daily menu, cheesecake is the best of the desserts.
The brunch buffet is impressive -- 15 dishes, from pasta salads with seafood to seafood in tomato sauce to omelets- to-order. But most of it is bland, chewy, greasy or otherwise unappealing. Salads are sprightly, blintzes are fine, poached eggs are gently cooked and not left to hang around the steamtable too long. But the cooking is haphazard. And I find it odd that a $12 buffet does not include coffee.
The problems with Devon Bar & Grill are summed up in the service: The most friendly, eager waitresses make each customer feel the highlight of their day. But all that good cheer doesn't count for much when several times we have had to wait 30 to 50 minutes for our appetizers, only to have our main courses come before we were finished with them; and at brunch our pancakes came only at the end of the meal. In all, Devon Bar & Grill is one of the pleasantest of environments for dining indifferently.