Arrive at the longtime location of Geppetto in Bethesda's Wildwood Shopping Center and you'll find a discreet sign indicating that its entrance is now located around the corner in a breezeway.
Occupying Geppetto's former street-front space is the Italian pizzeria's new American sibling, the sleek Oakville Grille and Wine Bar.
The interior is all calm and contemporary, with off-white walls accented by expanses of dark stained wood. Wine bottles, arranged in bins in the walls and standing in numbered order along low walls, are the main accessories.
Geppetto's owner, Charles Lenkin, has done this all before. Nearly a decade ago, he transformed Geppetto's M Street Northwest location into the Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar. He sold the Georgetown eatery last year.
Rather than the Mendocino wine area of California, the new Bethesda establishment pays homage to Napa Valley's Oakville region. There are more than 25 wines available by the glass, and at the bar they may be ordered in three-ounce tastes or five-ounce glasses.
Right now, the offerings will appeal mostly to novice wine enthusiasts. Though a few of the more than 120 selections top $40 a bottle, most are from mass producers whose products show up as specials on wine lists across the country. Montgomery County's unusual regulations governing wine purchases (restaurateurs must buy all alcohol from the county) undoubtedly contribute to the current lackluster list.
There are the beginnings of a reserve list, but true wine aficionados won't find much interesting.
In contrast, Chef Joseph Canlas's sophisticated comfort food gives suburban dining added respectability. Recruited from Washington's Occidental restaurant, where he rose from line cook to chef de cuisine over a five-year period, Canlas describes the menu as offering familiar dishes that have been tweaked with new ingredients.
Consider the white pizza with porcini mushrooms. Geppetto, which shares its kitchen with the new grill, has been famous for its white pizza for decades. But it can't compare with Oakville's thin-crust beauty, topped with fontina cheese and generous slices of this king of mushrooms. This is pizza for adults.
Caesar salad, which has been co-opted past distinction by everyone, including McDonald's and Applebee's, returns to its former glory at the Oakville Grille. Sheaves of romaine, glistening with a black pepper Parmigiano-Reggiano dressing, are tucked into a crispy phyllo vase. Not only is the presentation handsome, but the flavors are, too.
The menu has been well edited, including mostly salads and sandwiches at lunch and fewer than a dozen main courses at dinner. But each dish has been beautifully composed. A shrimp and avocado salad was dressed with a passion-fruit vinaigrette, then molded into a cylindrical shape and presented with a bed of spring greens. Slices of tenderloin were grilled just to medium rare, spread like a fan aside a tangle of greens and tomatoes, sprinkled with blue cheese and topped with mustard-spiked dressing. An arugula salad was bright with balsamico and Gorgonzola.
Ravioli fillings and their accompanying sauces are inventive: artichoke, potato and ricotta cheese with a tomato-red pepper water one day for lunch and shrimp with saffron at dinner. But on both occasions I thought the pasta itself was undercooked, especially the rice flour pasta that enclosed the artichoke and potato ravioli.
Main courses are based on standards such as beef tenderloin, wild salmon, roast chicken and veal chops. But the preparations are hardly old hat. The salmon gets an orange-mustard dressing and the chicken is brined in-house.
Beef tenderloin, steakhouse-charred on the outside and perfectly warm and pink on the inside, rests on creamy mashed potatoes and is topped with a crown of crispy onion strings. The red wine jus is as rich as demi-glace.
An inch-thick veal chop, cooked just a bit too much past medium, tops a richly flavored stew of potatoes and zucchini.
Desserts include a creamy creme brulee and a dense carrot cake, the plate of which is decorated with carrot juice.
Oakville Grille and Wine Bar 10257 Old Georgetown Rd. (in the Wildwood Shopping Center), Bethesda, 301-897-9100. Reservations recommended. Appetizers at lunch, $7-$11; main courses at lunch, $8-$17. Appetizers at dinner, $7-$13; main courses at dinner, $16-$25. Open for lunch, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, noon-3 p.m. Saturdays; dinner, 5-9:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5-10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 5-9 p.m. Sundays. Accessible for handicapped individuals.
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