The pope has yet to elope, and pigs have yet to fly. But something almost as amazing recently came to pass. I had dinner in Bethesda, and I liked it — a lot.
True story, not once but thrice, and I’m typing this without a gun to my head or an empty bottle of gin by my side. Possibly the most vanilla of restaurant suburbs in the area has a winner in Barrel & Crow, a new neighborhood spot sure to seduce diners who might have to drive or take Metro to reach it.
The food at Barrel & Crow is familiar (fried chicken and waffles) yet interesting (rhubarb-strawberry compote fills the crevices). The prices are agreeable, with entrees averaging $22. Co-owner Laura Houlihan mingles among customers with the easy charm of a block party hostess, and for once, the decibel count on my sound meter translates to easy listening, a surprise given the uncarpeted floors and brick surfaces. Helping the cause: tufted banquettes.
Houlihan and her business partner, Patrick Forest, know the streets of Bethesda well, having worked together for years as managers at Grapeseed, next door to Barrel & Crow. (“Jeff’s been great about the transition,” Forest says of their former boss at Grapeseed, chef Jeff Heineman.) The newcomer’s owners figured a humble spot with quality food would be a good business plan, a recipe abetted by Nick Palermo, the former executive chef of the dowager Old Angler’s Inn in Potomac.
Palermo improved the inn in his three-plus years there. Barrel & Crow finds the chef, 33, cooking with even more assuredness, or maybe he’s just having more fun in an environment in which he’s free to do his own thing as long as customers aren’t paying big-city prices.
Fried green tomatoes, nubby and crisp, and sauteed shrimp paired with grit croquettes are among a handful of dishes that lend Southern charm to Palermo’s menu. Those tomatoes are particularly good, affixed to the plate with a dab of house-made pimento cheese, which also dresses up the tops of the slices, and completed with a brilliant red pepper jam on the plate. Crab beignets are more subtle, but at least the chef uses only fresh and domestic crab to make the golden orbs, offered with a tuft of arugula garnished with diced smoked tomato. His meatballs and tangy tomato sauce, a staple at OAI, came with him to Bethesda. Rare yellowfin tuna sliced over fingerling potatoes and pickled radishes is a modern idea of what tuna salad ought to be. A swab of mayonnaise beneath the crimson fish is assertive with lemon and anchovy.
If all you ate here were appetizers, you’d leave thinking, “Nice to know you.” (Or “Wow!” in the case of the supple ravioli packed with shredded pork and served with a ragout of cranberry beans and salsify.) Forge deeper into the list, and you start considering which friends you want to hook up with beef short ribs, glossy thanks to their glaze of beer and veal stock, or that chicken, its crisp coat spiked with cayenne and garlic and each bite piping hot and juicy. Braised kale gives the fried bird nice support.
Mackerel is among the fishiest of fish, so I’m stoked by the clean flavor of the silvery specimen I encounter at Barrel & Crow. The chef sautes the East Coast catch and beds it on crisp charred corn, bright peppers and pickled ramps. The last ingredient is also emulsified with butter and splashed on the dish for more oomph.
Palermo’s steak, cooked just as you ask for it, oozes juice when cut. Yet the meat plays second fiddle to its terrific accessory: potatoes that are baked, cooled, skinned, broken up, fried to a gentle crisp and seasoned with Old Bay. (Palermo credits his mentor at 2941 in Falls Church, chef Bertrand Chemel, for showing him the spud trick.)
Little touches here and there — smoked tomato vinaigrette on an asparagus salad, sauteed cornbread with the short ribs — distinguish this kitchen from the competition.
That goes for the last course, too. Each dessert comes with a nice charge: melt-on-the-tongue shortbread cookies with the rich chocolate pudding; fresh ginger, lots of it, in a rhubarb crisp that deftly marries sweet with tang; and glassy macadamia nut brittle with rummy caramelized pineapple and coconut ice cream. Veteran pastry chef Rita Garruba also knows to let fresh strawberries and whipped cream be the stars of her fine shortcake.
The cocktails could use more finesse, and one night’s pork chop was cooked past optimal, but in light of all that’s so right about this arrival, those criticisms sound like first-world niggles. The more pressing question is, why can’t more neighborhood spots hit their marks like Barrel & Crow? The experience of its principals shows, and I appreciate waiters who don’t act like helicopters at the table. Instead, they show up, smiles in place, only as necessary.
The kitchen’s no-waste philosophy extends to the dining room, outfitted to a large extent with salvaged material. The wood on the walls comes from an old barn, and the windows in the private dining room once graced an airport in Leesburg. (The group space can seat up to 20.) As for the comfortable mid-century modern chairs, they’re from the dining hall of the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
Forest says the restaurant’s name borrows from an Old English expression, cock-a-hoop, which, according to his online research, could mean “stand on the barrel and crow with exaltation.” For sure, Bethesda’s latest dining destination is something to crow about.
Location: 4867 Cordell Ave., Bethesda. 240-800-3253. www.barrelandcrow.com .
Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday; brunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $7 to $12, main courses $18 to $29.
Sound check: 65 decibels / Conversation is easy.
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