200 S. Market St. (at South Street), Frederick. 301-620-7480
Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner Monday through Saturday 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday dinner 4 to 8 p.m. AE, MC, V. Street parking. No smoking. Prices: lunch appetizers $7 to $13, entrees $8 to $13; dinner appetizers $6 to $21, entrees $21 to $31. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $60 per person.
Part of the thrill of experiencing Zest in its first life was its where-the-heck-is-this location: a small shopping center in a place outside Frederick called Monrovia, almost an hour northwest of downtown Washington.
"Monrovia?" one of several skeptical city friends asked. "Do I need a passport?"
I always got a kick out of turning reluctant dining companions into eager returnees. The payoffs at the end of the road were a sunny dining room that underscored the restaurant's upbeat name and a solid American kitchen watched over by two friends -- chefs David Jones and Keith Sleppy -- who put in time together at Black's Bar and Kitchen in Bethesda. Not every dish at the old Zest was worth the trek, but plenty were, and I admired the chefs' efforts to showcase Maryland ingredients, from beers brewed in Frederick to rabbit raised in Woodsboro.
Fast-forward to 2005 and Frederick's main drag, where Jones and Sleppy relocated over the summer, transforming a former consignment shop into a near-clone of their original restaurant. Same yellow walls? Check. Cookbooks and wine displayed on shelves? Uh-huh. A cluster of tall tables up front give those sitting there a view of the street action, while booths in the rear look onto a lively bar (and a sliver of the kitchen). Meanwhile, a pressed-tin ceiling and sepia-toned photographs add dashes of old-fashioned charm.
"Looks pretty good, doesn't it?" Jones asks, soliciting feedback from a customer he identifies as a regular of the original Zest. It does. Just entering the new Zest makes me feel a little lighter.
I get even more jazzed when I open the menu and spot the familiar "tastings." These are the chefs' take on hors d'ouevres, a cross between a snack and a first course. One of them is a little bowl of fried oysters; "The Love Is Back," reads its description. Plenty of affection seems to have gone into the piping-hot bites of seafood, slightly crunchy with cornmeal and plenty hair-raising with a drizzle of chile-ignited remoulade. The same could be said of the trembling corn custard perched on a latticelike doily of fried potatoes. Pudding gives way to crunch in every bite in this simultaneously soothing and elegant presentation. A tasting of grilled fresh squid was not enough; I wanted more of the toss, brightened with fresh basil, lemon and garlic. "Pepper popper" turns out to be a shrimp-filled red pepper surrounded by chopped sauteed onion and cloaked in a light cheese sauce. It's pleasant. The praise slows down with vegetable "sushi" that is more amusing than delicious: wan, seaweed-wrapped red pepper and carrots served with a lemony vinaigrette for dipping and chopsticks for eating.
How has the move from Monrovia to Frederick changed Zest? Jones is apt to say: "We've advanced a little bit. We're more refined, more in the groove." If the emphasis on local ingredients is less (the chefs are still developing sources for a number of ingredients), the creativity has been ratcheted up. "Frilly steak and cheese," a true appetizer, offers a delicious example: lightly fried sweetbreads encased in a toasted brioche bun with a bit of telagio cheese. The sandwich looks like a hamburger but fancier, escorted as it is by delicate fingerling potato chips. To attract area Francophiles, Jones put rabbit on the menu; moist and meaty, it's served with a light cream sauce and both halved Brussels sprouts and bok choy. Yet, in a nod to more conservative tastes (and something of an inside joke), the menu also features "Yes, a Salad Comes With That," a changing sampler of five salads, the best of which has included caviar-crowned potato salad and a miniature Caesar.
Of the two owners, Jones is clearly the more comfortable dealing with the public, making a point to spend two evenings a week working the dining room like a politician facing election. Some of his underlings go about the task of serving with similar gusto, as if they were throwing a party in their own home. "See the couple over there?" one especially gregarious waiter said to me as he went over the menu. "They like the halibut so much they ordered another!" With a pitch like that, I had to get that fish dish, too. A green coat of wasabi on the halibut, a base of loose black rice beneath it and a moat of carrot sauce shocked with ginger added up to a pretty big temptation.
Ask any restaurant reviewer: Like tuna tartare and creme brulee, chicken is one of the dishes we inevitably order only because we know a lot of readers gravitate to it and will want to know how a restaurant handles it. Like tuna tartare and creme brulee, chicken is also often boring, the presumably "safe" choice on many menus. In recent months, I've found myself eating my own words, however, as several restaurants, including this one, demonstrate that not all chickens are created equal. Zest uses an organic chicken, fries it with bacon pieces and puts it on a plate with coarse grits arranged with sweet shrimp. Enticing as the "surf" is, the bacon-enhanced "turf" trumps it. If Michelin were evaluating just this entree, the famous French guide would surely write it up as "worth a detour."
Other dishes left me wondering how they ever left the kitchen -- or if I was eating something that was still on the drawing board. One of a handful of clinkers is the massive pork osso bucco, shanks of meat supposedly seasoned with jerk spices. Maybe someone forgot to add the fiery, flowery tropical accent; what I received smacked of the Midwest. Worse, the bland dish -- a meteor-size chunk of gray meat -- looked like something Wilma Flintstone might have served Fred after a long day of cave-cleaning.
Zest's wine list takes a let's-give-'em-one-of-each approach -- there's a single riesling, pinot noir, chianti, zinfandel, etc. -- and, admirably, no bottle is more than $30. While the low pricing structure encourages diners to drink wine with their meals, the list itself needs more descriptions. (The novice imbiber, for instance, might not know what to expect from a vouvray.)
You will be happy if you order chocolate cake for dessert. It arrives dark and rich, and robed in a satiny chocolate (or sometimes a lighter coffee) sauce. Poundcake garnished with roasted pineapple and whipped cream is a crowd-pleaser, as is a summer tart of peaches and almonds. While the different flavors of creme brulee beckoned -- lemongrass and dulce de leche -- the custards' eggy textures canceled out my initial enthusiasm.
Zest? Even with its flaws, the reincarnation packs in a lot of spirit.
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"Can you recommend a restaurant to get good meatloaf?" asks Bill Schuman. The reader e-mailed me from Gallup, N.M., but says he comes to Washington on occasion to visit an 84-year-old uncle who "really enjoys meatloaf." Among the places I would steer the guys are Colorado Kitchen (5515 Colorado Ave. NW; 202-545-8280), home to a ground turkey-and-beef model ($14) offered at dinner with black truffle gravy and potatoes au gratin; Zola (800 F St. NW; 202-654-0999), which features a bacon-swaddled veal meatloaf ($14) with mashed potatoes and sauteed vegetables at lunch; Jackie's (8081 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; 301-565-9700), whose kitchen makes meatloaf ($12) -- using cottage cheese as well as pork, veal and beef -- on Saturdays, and serves the special with green beans and mashed potatoes; and Boulevard Woodgrill (2901 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-875-9663), where the grilled, three-meat meatloaf comes with macaroni and cheese at lunch ($8.95), whipped potatoes and creamed spinach at dinner ($12.95) -- and a buttery tomato sauce all the time.
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