Edward Reavis did not grow up on the waterfront. He is from a small town in Virginia, about 90 miles inland from the Chesapeake Bay. There is a reservoir there, but Emporia is not exactly a place for coastal living. The chef’s cooking background, too, is more turf than surf: The first big jobs on his résumé were at corporate steakhouses, Morton’s and Capital Grille.
But several years ago, Reavis went shipping up to Nantucket to work in the kitchen of Cru. It went … swimmingly: The contemporary oyster bar on the wharf was named best new restaurant by Boston magazine, and Reavis, the sous-chef there, found his apparent calling, as a fish guy.
Having since come back south, Reavis can now be found piloting a kitchen in Silver Spring. But Cape Cod remains on his mind — and his menu.
His new home is All Set Restaurant & Bar, named for a common New England phrase meaning “good to go.”
“Are we all set?” a server says one night, after we’ve spent a few minutes debating which of the five preparations of clams we want. (As it turns out, you’ll probably want nearly all of them, though not in one sitting.)
“All set?” the same server says, following desserts.
By meal’s end, the phrase feels like an overused gimmick: The bill is delivered in a folded piece of paper with “NOT YET” on one side and “ALL SET” on the other.
You might be alarmed by the numbers inside. Steak frites are $34. So, too, were the market-price Maryland crab cakes. Well-constructed, they come in sets of two, served over Old Bay-spiked beurre blanc and a bright summer succotash that I could (and would) have eaten by the bushel. Rockfish, woefully underseasoned on two visits, was market-priced at $35.
All Set is aiming fairly high, with a serious proffer that adds creative flourishes to Atlantic Coast traditionalism — and equally serious prices that seem to place the restaurant on the D.C. Coast, rather than downtown Silver Spring, in the heart of a suburb that hasn’t exactly demonstrated a collective eagerness to dine out at expense-account prices.
The 125-seat restaurant opened in the spring, in the old Golden Flame space on the ground floor of the Montgomery Park office building. If you ever ventured inside the famously dark Golden Flame during its four decades, you may not have known there was enough running electricity in the building to light the restaurant.
All Set’s designers illuminated the space as if it were the Chatham Lighthouse. The room is now very bright and very bold. It is also heavy on the maritime theme: Nautical rope is everywhere — separating sections of the restaurant, dangling from light fixtures — and parts of the ceiling resemble an upside-down boat dock. Capiz-shell-style chandeliers hang over the tables in the bar, and there is a nautical compass on the navy-and-white sign out front.
It’s borderline kitschy, but it should not distract from the kitchen’s best work, from the smoked bluefish dip to the food coming out of the deep fryer. Nor should the Top 40 music that blares over the restaurant’s speakers, sometimes to humorous effect: “Now if we’re talking body, you got a perfect one,” Tove Lo sang somewhat encouragingly one night, after I had eaten about three pounds of shellfish.
All Set nods to the Mid-Atlantic, but it is a New England restaurant at heart. The clearest evidence of this is the inclusion of fried whole-belly clams on the menu.
“I bet you can’t find another restaurant within 100 miles that serves fried clams,” a server boasts. That may not be true, but you may not find a better version this far from Cape Cod.
Reavis’s example of the summer staple is served with a twist — Old Bay tartar — but the sauce distracts from the crisp, succulent and slightly silty deep-fried bellies, which should be eaten immediately upon landing on the table.
Clams are also served raw at All Set (littlenecks, $1.50 per pop) and in three other preparations, including clam chowder and clam fettuccine. Most notable are the chorizo clams: Littlenecks on the half-shell, baked with spicy sausage and crunchy breadcrumbs, making for a surprising and irresistible mix of textures and flavors.
The hot lobster roll, hidden away at the very end of the menu and served (of course) with a bag of Cape Cod chips, is also worthy of your attention, for its textbook preparation of tail meat. But the buttery lobster disappears too quickly, because the brioche isn’t cut quite deeply enough, making for a bread-meat imbalance.
The lobster bisque is an opulent, aromatic delight, rich, creamy and studded with sweet kernels of corn. Unfortunately, it was available only during last month’s Silver Spring Restaurant Week — and, as with the chowder, was served in a clear mug. A serious soup deserves a serious bowl.
Some of the fish dishes are worth avoiding. The tuna tartare, liberally seasoned with white soy sauce, pushed the salt level to the limit; though diced avocado provided necessary balance, the potato chips that ringed the plate made for an inedible bite — the perfect storm of salt. There may not be enough nautical- and New England-themed cocktails on the All Set menu (Blown Off Course, HiHowAhYa), as playful as they are, to clear out that taste.
Oysters Rockefeller, those New Orleans interlopers, were overwhelmed by bacon and spinach; the Chincoteague oyster essentially disappeared in its own shell. Much better are the raw Nasketucket oysters, best consumed with All Set’s mignonette.
A trout crab meuniere special one night had much going for it — standout smoked cauliflower and mouth-watering bites of butter-bathed crab — but the trout itself, the centerpiece of the dish, was underseasoned, heavy and dense.
That trout was recommended one night by our server, who did a rather curious thing when we asked what entrees we might consider ordering from the fish-filled menu: Before touting the fish special, he first suggested chicken (not a species of fish) and beef (also not a species of fish).
Another night, a different server recommended the same two non-fish dishes (brick chicken, a moist and massive half-bird; and beef short ribs, which were too dry by half), along with the crispy-skin salmon.
The recommendations seemed off-brand and off-mission at a restaurant that is so clearly focused on seafood. Did they not notice the nautical theme that surrounded them?
Such obliviousness sometimes became inattentiveness, as the service at All Set is casual almost to a fault. On one visit, multiple servers and hostesses congregated near the bar, chatting loudly during dinner service.
Perhaps they were just telling fish tales.
Location: 8630 Fenton St., Silver Spring. 301-495-8800. www.allsetrestaurant.com.
Open: Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday; dinner 4:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday; brunch10 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Lunch and appetizers $8 to $16, main courses $17 to $34. Brunch main courses $8 to $16.
Sound check: 62 decibels / Conversation is easy.