11791 Fingerboard Road/Route 80
(near Route 75), Monrovia
301-865-0868. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Thursday 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. No smoking. Parking lot.
Prices: lunch appetizers $5 to $6.50, entrees $7.50 to $10.50;
dinner appetizers $5.25 to $8.95, entrees $15.50 to $21.
Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $60 to $70 per person.
On their way to opening a restaurant together this past February, David Jones and Keith Sleppy learned a few lessons. One was not to solicit the opinions of friends and family for a name, because everyone ultimately vetoed all their ideas. Another was to keep the title short and simple, in part so people could remember it easily, but also because, as Jones found out, "the bigger the name, the more expensive the sign."
Zest fit into their budget.
It also neatly sums up the spirited approach that the two chefs--who met years ago at the Inn at Glen Echo, and more recently cooked at Black's Bar and Kitchen in Bethesda--have taken with their joint venture, which is tucked into a corner of the Green Valley Shopping Center in Monrovia, about 45 minutes northwest of downtown Washington. People still show up at Zest wondering what happened to the smoky Mexican restaurant that preceded it, a picture the two men worked hard to erase. "No tequila," Jones informs the curious, some of whom look puzzled to find themselves in a pretty, soft-yellow dining room, now a cigarette- and margarita-free zone.
In their place is something much better: a list of beers brewed in Frederick, for openers, and bread baked right in the restaurant. With few exceptions, the ingredients at Zest could carry a Made in Maryland stamp, from the dairy products from South Mountain Creamery in Middletown, to the rabbit from a farmer in Woodsboro. All these details are explained as customers are led to the table and handed menus, sometimes by the boyish, plus-size Jones, who doubles as a gregarious front man when he's not behind the scenes. "The other fat guy is in the kitchen," he says good-naturedly.
Their eclectic menu begins not with appetizers but with little dishes called "tastings," for an average of $4.75 apiece. Typically, they are three to four bites each, and diners are encouraged to order a bunch and share them, like tapas. Nuggets of lightly breaded, custardy-centered sweetbreads get a nice boost from a dab of apple cider reduction, while dark yellow mustard brightens an hors d'oeuvre of mellow chicken livers. One of my favorite opening acts is tiny shrimp and big, creamy white beans in garlicky butter sauce, accessorized with crostini. Bangers and mash, that oh-so-British merger of sausage and mashed potatoes, makes an appearance, too, and it's delicious, particularly on a brisk fall night; the snappy herbed sausage and subtly garlicky spuds are as welcome as a favorite flannel shirt.
Appetizers are slightly larger than these tastings and include items like beer-steamed mussels, fennel-cured salmon, a cheese plate and a "sandwich" made from meaty portobello mushroom. One of my top picks is the grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup, combining a warm half-sandwich oozing sharp blue cheese and a demitasse of deeply flavored soup, rich with cream and herbs.
A customer wants Jones to help him decide between two entrees. Salmon or scallops? The chef's response is disarmingly honest. "I hate salmon!" he practically shouts, going into a story about how much of the fish he's cut and prepared over years in the business. "The scallops are great!" He's right about that. Four fat, sweet seared scallops sit on pedestals of whipped potatoes, a pool of pesto nearby for swabbing. The youthful servers follow Jones's lead, eager to share their favorites, one of which is a thick, succulent grilled rib-eye steak rounded out with roughly chopped cooked greens. One of my favorites? That Woodsboro rabbit, joined by grits cakes and a confetti of warm, bacon-laced cabbage.
Buying from local sources and making a lot of things from scratch is a nice idea, but I wouldn't mind seeing a bit more finesse in some of the cooking. One night's vegetable popover, an appetizer, was just a greasy, floury turnover hiding some diced squash, red peppers and more. And roast chicken with wine-splashed vegetables tasted incomplete: The bird was unevenly cooked, as were the skin-on cubed potatoes, some of them hard to the bite.
The big dining room, gutted and redecorated by Jones and Sleppy, and divided by a half-wall to create some intimacy, is one part Restoration Hardware, one part Ikea. Plain butcher block tables are dressed up with fresh flowers, and chic lights in pastel colors dangle from above. Fruit and vegetable portraits reinforce the restaurant's close-to-home-and-garden theme. Order a bottle of wine, and the server retrieves nice stemware from a see-through cabinet in the rear. The details are fun, and telling: The restrooms feature an array of high-end cookbooks that can keep diners behind locked doors for longer than intended. "If we come in again," a woman once asked Jones, pointing to a page of a book she had discovered on her time away from the table, "can you do this pheasant for us?" Yes, he could, he told her.
"There's a whole lot of love there," Jones says as he sets on the table an apple tart of poached fruit, caramelized nuts and a melting scoop of ice cream. "Zest trifle" shows up in a martini glass, its tart lemon curd layered over super-sweet white chocolate mousse. By far the best of the endings is the chocolate chiffon cake; light in texture, it sports a robe of chocolate and comes with good coffee ice cream--churned, of course, just steps away from where it is fast disappearing.
George Rothstein got more--and less--than he asked for when he requested some ketchup for his french fries at Cafe de Paris in Columbia recently. "I was informed that since this was a French restaurant, ketchup was not available," writes the Columbia reader; his waitress offered to bring him mustard instead. "It struck me as pompous, pretentious and arrogant for a modest bistro," he says. Owner Erik Rochard says he has heard the complaint before, but chooses not to stock the American condiment. "I want to do the thing we do in France," says the restaurateur, who is adamant about offering what is "true and original" on his menu. But at least one ketchup-loving customer, Rochard says, has addressed the problem by bringing his own.
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