Even so, it’s hard not to note the similarities between Shilling Canning Company and the Dabney, personal expressions of the Mid-Atlantic that come with impressive heating elements: a massive hearth that draws eyes to the fire at the senior dining destination and a copper-topped oven fueled with a mix of oak, hickory and cherry wood at the upstart. Shilling Canning Company acknowledges the chef’s family’s onetime business in Carroll County, Md. From 1935 to 1958, the farmers canned what they grew, including peas, tomatoes, corn and green beans. The Shilling brand lives on in the form of some old vegetable cans on display at the restaurant, where the chef’s wife, Sara Quinteros-Shilling, serves as director of business development.
The dining room, awash in natural light and polished concrete floors, benefits from little comforts and cheffy touches. Notice the pillows on the banquettes and the curing room currently aging duck breasts? Planters outside the restaurant contain herbs Shilling cuts just ahead of dinner service to use on his plates. They are put to fragrant use in a natural art installation of heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers and lightly battered squash that the menu calls Vines & Nightshades.
“I’m partial to blue,” says Shilling, whose servers sport shirts and aprons in different shades of the color and whose tables are set with blue water glasses. The hue (and perhaps the map of the Chesapeake Bay facing me from a wall) makes me think of water, which leads me to order seafood. Set off with bits of summery peaches and smoky Aleppo pepper, a crudo of scallops nevertheless projects the clean appeal of the featured attraction. Now is the time to fill up on soft-shell crabs, so here they come, too, atop a bowl of braised greens and creamy grits. Shilling dusts the seafood with corn flour and crisps them in cast-iron skillets he buys on the Eastern Shore. The pleasing entree is finished with hot-sauced honey and benne seeds. Tasting of the season, blueberry crumble made me glad to have waited to ask for the check.
If only there were more such good times on the menu. I realize it’s early in the life of the newcomer, but Shilling Canning Company is sending out too many mistakes for a business that was announced two years ago and presumably had time to polish its ideas. Clams on a bed of ice delivered grit in every bite, and a sourdough flatbread decked out in juicy tomatoes and garlic confit was notable mostly for its pale, underbaked crust. What’s billed as deviled ham in an appetizer of deviled eggs tastes of salt more than anything else, and a fan of sliced pork with grilled peaches and roasted carrots (curious platemates) appeared to have surrendered its juices to the heat where it was overcooked. A main course of lamb rib — just a few bites of meat, really — makes me question its $45 price.
Cocktails, in contrast, are consistent and delicious. Bar director Britt Ingalls seems to know just what a lot of us want to drink in hot weather, and she sometimes delivers the goods herself. Ingalls rethinks the District’s native cocktail, the rickey, with the herbaceous green spiced rum produced by local craftsman Todd Thrasher, and Riverdale Orchard fairly sings with its combination of pear eau de vie, yellow Chartreuse, honey and lemon juice.
For the moment, the backstory bests reality at Shilling Canning Company. As much as I want to root for its success, the kitchen needs to nail more of its selections for me to willingly gravitate to the dining room rather than the bar.
360 Water St. SE. 202-554-7474. shillingcanning.com. Entrees, $16 to $45.
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