OLD HICKORY GRILLE -- 7263-G ARLINGTON BLVD., FALLS CHURCH. 703-207-8650. Open: Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Sunday noon to 9 p.m.; lunch specials daily 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. All major credit cards. No reservations. No smoking. Prices: appetizers $2.25 to $6.95, entrees $6.95 to $21.95. Full dinner with wine or beer, tax and
tip $25 to $40 per person.
Remember "My Man Godfrey," the classic 1930s flick where William Powell is an upper-class guy who pretends he's a butler and wins the heart of rich girl Carole Lombard? Well, Old Hickory Grille is like William Powell: Here's a first-class restaurant that looks like something far less, and thoroughly seduces us anyway. The waitresses wear faded jeans, the semi-open kitchen could have come from some ancient diner, the cook has a baseball cap on his head, and the decor might have been patched together at a surplus store. But the food gives away Old Hickory's true colors. This is a top-notch operation, with fresh, high-quality ingredients, careful and consistent preparation, and remarkable attention to detail. All of this should be no surprise to anyone who's eaten at the original Old Hickory Grille in Burtonsville, where the menu is essentially the same and the environment even plainer.
Much of the food here is traditional American fare, but raised to a rare level of excellence. If Old Hickory's onion rings, grits, catfish and bread pudding could speak, they'd say, "Hey, be proud of us. We're your native cuisine, and we're just as good as the country dishes of France or Italy."
You'll get an idea of exactly how good when the server plunks down the basket of delicate little corn muffins and jalapeno biscuits that start every meal. From there you can slide right into an order of fried oysters, with just the right oyster-to-batter ratio -- a gentle bite through the coating and the juiciness explodes in your mouth. That extra tingle comes from the barely detectable bit of horseradish-cream sauce under the oysters; this is down-home cooking with a sophisticated spin. The fried calamari are excellent, too, as are the fried crayfish. Old Hickory's special way with frying is showcased in the onion rings, called "straws" here. Sliced so thin they're practically shavings, they somehow retain sweet softness beneath their crisp outer surface. The Cajun egg rolls are an inspired invention: a crackly, tender egg-roll skin enclosing a spicy mixture of chicken, spinach and tasso ham, served with an addictive sweet-hot dipping sauce spiked with mustard, horseradish and ginger. The jack cheese and spinach dip is better than most -- simultaneously creamy and hot, with an intriguing salsa made with fire-roasted tomatoes. The Buffalo wings are okay, but no match for the other appetizers.
We've found the soups nothing much here. And the house salad, big but somewhat overpriced at $7.95, is just ordinary, though the Greek salad is a gem. Note that the house-made dressings, available for carryout, include a gutsy horseradish-garlic combination; you might want to take some home as an all-purpose dip.
When it comes to all-American entrees, you won't go wrong with Old Hickory's marvelous catfish fillet, thick, moist and firm-textured, with a delicate crust that tastes of buttermilk, a sprinkling of chopped pecans and a light lemon-cream sauce. Another sure bet is the grits and gravy served with plump, fresh-tasting shrimp. Hold on there, Yankee: Don't say you don't like grits until you've tasted Old Hickory's. Stone-ground, creamy but not runny, this stuff has real bite. And it soaks up an irresistible gravy sparked by spicy tasso ham and andouille sausage. Think of a good risotto and you'll understand this dish. We found the third homespun entree, hickory-grilled meatloaf, disappointing -- too much smoke flavor, too little texture.
It's not all Americana here. Old Hickory does a slick chicken piccata, a remarkably juicy breast with mushrooms, shallots, capers and a delightful lemon-cream sauce similar to the one that adorns the catfish. For a chicken dish with a Latino kick, try the poblano version, with a moderately hot, nicely garlicky topping of chili peppers, onion, mushrooms and tomatoes. For still more heat, order the Creole pork chops, thin medallions of pork, satisfyingly tender and surprisingly succulent, in a dark, peppery sauce. Carne a la parilla, Old Hickory's version of fajitas, will probably generate as much controversy at your table as it did at ours; we thought its soy sauce marinade made the meat too salty without tenderizing it enough, but others liked the dish.
Of Old Hickory's four pastas, three are mild, one hot. The best of the mild ones is "killer shrimp" -- excellent jumbo shrimp, mushrooms and green onions, served in a soothing seafood broth over angel hair. Simple but lovely. Linguine with marinara sauce is even plainer, but what with fresh-tasting tomato and carefully cooked pasta, it's satisfying in its own right. The dish enigmatically called angel hair pasta -- which turns out to include garlic, olive oil, mushrooms, plum tomatoes and basil -- walks a fine line between subtle and boring; our table mates voted for boring, but we liked its freshness and lightness. You need only read its name to know what Bourbon Street pasta is all about: andouille, garlic, pepper. Tamed somewhat with mushrooms, shallots and cream, this is an enticing, deftly balanced dish.
The name "Old Hickory" might imply good barbecue, but in fact barbecue is this restaurant's weakest link. The barbecued chicken has been dry, and on several tries the ribs have been either dry or excessively fatty. Another disappointment is the dish called Taste of the Grill, which combines good but plain shrimp (devoid of the lime described on the menu), jerk chicken without much jerk flavor, and more of those undistinguished ribs.
Dessert? Oh my, yes. The chocolate pecan pie, contrary to what the menu says, is a chocolate pie with pecans, and it's irresistible. The banana-chocolate bread pudding, with the texture of a dense pound cake, will convert even non-bread-pudding types. You might also try one of Old Hickory's fresh fruit slurries as a dessert -- it's like a sorbet in a glass. Or finish off with a classy milkshake, like the one made with chocolate and raspberry. Or, best of all, combine the innocence of childhood with the license of adulthood by ordering one of the booze-enhanced milkshakes -- the one with rum, coconut, pineapple juice, raspberries and vanilla ice cream is a blast.
Enjoy Old Hickory as a living lesson. Take foreign visitors here for the fried oysters, the catfish, the grits, the corn muffins, the bread pudding -- this is simple American food you'll be glad to show off. Take your kids, so they can experience what a frozen fruit drink tastes like without chemicals. (If they say they like Slurpees better, you'll know Western civilization has died.) And take yourself. This place may not look like much, but it's deeply satisfying.
Mark and Gail Barnett are freelance restaurant critics. Phyllis C. Richman is on vacation.