TapaBar in Bethesda is history. "We loved it," says co-owner Alonso Roche. "My dream was to make Spanish food."
So why did he pull the plug after New Year's Eve? "It was popular on weekends," Roche says, but viewed the rest of the time as a dining destination for special occasions.
After some brainstorming with his family, including his brother and business partner, Alvaro, the decision was made to rebrand the property. R Family Kitchen & Bar, TapaBar's replacement in the Woodmont Triangle, specializes in "sizzle plates": steak, chicken or salmon served on a surface so hot you hear the entree en route from kitchen to table. Think fajitas sans tortillas.
The menu switch was made in part to appeal to families. Hence the chicken wings, served as appetizers with Old Bay seasoning, barbecue glaze or Sriracha-honey sauce, the last messy to eat but with agreeable heat. Less appealing are a Caesar salad as overdressed as Lady Gaga and pork spring rolls whose wrappers are the thickness of book covers.
There are chopsticks on the table — useful decoration for anyone ordering pho, a curious offering Roche says his team gravitated to between shifts at TapaBar and also served at pop-ups. Unfortunately, R Family Kitchen's bowl of noodles and shredded chicken won't be confused with anything dished out within Eden Center, a.k.a. Little Saigon in Falls Church. Star anise overwhelms the chicken broth.
For such a brief menu, the restaurant ought to deliver more exactitude. The noisy salmon entree arrives in a fishy-smelling haze, overcooked, while the sliced steak needs every speck of its shimmering chimichurri to knock back. The meat lacks beefiness. Chicken has, well, moistness to its credit and is best accompanied by a side of cauliflower, drenched in butter and smoky with Spanish paprika.
Given what has come before them, desserts are unexpectedly satisfying. The one that stirs the most spoons to action is the hot fudge sundae accessorized with bites of poundcake, pecan brittle and dulce de leche, plus hot fudge you can add yourself at the table. If only every dish here were as happy-making.
The woven bull heads that previously dressed the walls have been replaced by family photos. (The "R" in the newcomer's name stands for Roche.) Otherwise, the dining room looks much the same as it did when tortilla Espanola and garlic shrimp were being served. The wall of live greenery survives, for instance, as have the pillows on the back banquette.
Ultimately, all I can think of as I pay the bill is how much I'd rather be eating small plates than this misguided notion of value.
4901 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda. 240-483-4004. rfamilykitchen.com. "Sizzle plates," $16.75 to $19.75