BLACK'S BAR AND KITCHEN -- 7750 WOODMONT AVE., BETHESDA. 301-652-6278. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Saturday 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 9 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for light fare Monday through Saturday 2:30 p.m. to closing, Sunday 3 p.m. to closing. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar area and at outdoor tables only. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.95 to $9, entrees $6.25 to $11.95; dinner appetizers $4.95 to $9.95, entrees $16.50 to $21. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $47 to $62 per person.
You can't tell who's who anymore. Stockbrokers nowadays drive pickups, bankers buy tank tops at Target, and their daughters have tattoos. It's the same with restaurants. In the old days, when people and things knew their place, expensive dining establishments looked classy and cheap ones looked crummy. No more. Now you can find cutting-edge food (and prices) in restaurants that look like something out of "Key Largo."
Open just a few months, Black's Bar and Kitchen is a restaurant so self-consciously proletarian that even its name evokes cigar stubs and sagging
T-shirts. Neon beer signs and a row of mousetraps decoratively nailed behind the bar reinforce the waterfront dive motif. (Some of the seedier aspects of the decor may be left over from the former occupant, Gulf Coast Kitchen.) But don't be fooled by what you see. The "Black" in this case is Jeff Black, the talented chef who is co-owner of Addie's in Rockville, and most of the food here is very good indeed.
The cuisine is basically Gulf Coast, with an accent on seafood. Black bolsters it with vivid accompaniments that enhance natural flavors rather than subduing them.
The appetizers get the meal off to a strong start. The Campeche is a sundae glass filled with a tomato-cilantro mixture embedded with shrimp and morsels of lump crab. Picture a solid-state seafood gazpacho and you've got it. The plantain shrimp, succulent and crusty-battered, come with a dynamite mustard-orange sauce. The duck enchilada, a corn tortilla rolled around tender morsels of duck, has a spicy-tart tomatillo sauce that contrasts nicely with the mild meat. We found the New Orleans chopped salad odd but tasty, a mixture of iceberg lettuce, fried crayfish, bits of grilled potato and roasted corn. But the portobello salad is excessively oily, and the fried calamari exceptionally tough.
Oysters Marsha Ellen, shellfish served under a delicate thatch of cheese and garlic butter, is outstanding. The bar menu, also available in the dining room, includes several more excellent oyster choices. The best of the lot may be the oysters Addie, with just enough cornmeal batter to entrap the oyster juices, and with a captivating, slightly tart sauce made with tasso ham and corn. Bacon, leeks and chives attenuate the richness of the oyster stew, giving it an unusually light, non-cloying quality. Oysters en brochette are cooked perfectly, but their bacon wrapper, delicious as it is, overwhelms the delicate oyster flavor.
Our favorite entree is easily the Vermilion Bay seafood stew, which hones bouillabaisse to a brilliant edge. It
doesn't look like much -- a bowl of murky broth with half-submerged lumps of this and that. But what a broth, flavored with saffron and bits of tomato, sweet red pepper and spinach. And what lumps: clams, shrimp, snapper, salmon, squid and mussels, each timed perfectly, plus some spicy duck sausage to lend snap to the whole enterprise. This is buried treasure. The best of the fish dishes is the yellowfin tuna, with a crusty, pepper-studded surface and a buttery-soft, barely warm interior. Sweet-tart pineapple and earthy black beans add a flavor boost, but what holds the whole thing together is the delightful lime-cilantro sauce. The tortilla-crusted snapper has been a tad overdone, but it's surrounded by such a glorious array of flavors and textures -- black beans, wilted spinach, pico de gallo, a mango-ginger sauce -- that you're willing to forgive and forget. By contrast, we found the salmon fillet and its mild, shrimp-based sauce a little too soft-spoken.
The crab cakes may not be as lumpy as they should be, but the rest of the plate -- the garlic whipped potatoes, the sharp mustard sauce, the sauteed turnip greens -- rivets your attention. Don't bother with the alligator tail, an occasional special; it tastes like (what else?) chicken. Tough chicken. Instead, go for the real thing. Black's roast chicken is marvelous, with that old-fashioned, vaguely gamy flavor that you seldom find anymore. It comes with a mushroom stew, mashed potatoes and a slightly sweet demiglaze that consolidates everything on the plate. If your mom was a great cook, this will remind you of Sunday dinner back home. If not, you can buy yourself a second childhood at Black's for $18.50.
For $19.95 you can remember what real beef used to taste like; the sirloin here actually has a beefy flavor, and it's cooked just right. The thick, remarkably juicy pork chop is very good, too, served the night we tried it with an interesting melange of sweet potato, asparagus and fresh pineapple. "Shrimp pasta" is a simple name for a simple dish -- just shrimp, fresh tomato, Swiss chard and garlic over angel hair -- but it's ethereally light, with fresh, intense flavors and wonderful color-texture contrasts. It far outshines the clam pasta, which is no better than you'd get in a decent neighborhood trattoria.
The wine list, short and expensive, offers 32 selections by the bottle, half of them priced at $38 or above. Toward the low end, the Guenoc cabernet and chardonnay, at $29 and $26 respectively, are satisfying.
Desserts are okay, but they don't match the appetizers and entrees. The berry-lime mousse is a refreshing frozen concoction, the orange creme brulee is light but full-flavored, and the berry crisp combines fresh berries and a bit of nicely crumbly crust. Beyond that, nothing much to recommend.
There's more to Black's than just dinner. There are burgers or oysters at the bar all day long. The pleasant deck and balcony could make attractive brunch destinations, though the brunch food doesn't have nearly the pizazz of dinner. In fact, the innovative brunch items tend to fall flat -- so stick with standard fare like eggs benedict and Belgian waffles. Be warned, too, that Black's is a very busy restaurant where both the food and the service can plummet under pressure, as they did during one of our weeknight visits when the crowd was unexpectedly thick.
Finally, a note for the noise-averse. If you want maximum quiet, eat outside. Even with downtown Bethesda traffic, it seems downright hushed out there compared with the din in the dining room.
Mark and Gail Barnett are freelance restaurant critics. Phyllis C. Richman is on vacation.