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Garrison review: A chef finds his place — and his groove — on Barracks Row

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 10: Crispy Skin Arctic Char with dill and cucumbers (foreground) and Parker House Rolls (background) at Garrison (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)


This review appears in The Washington Post’s 2015 Fall Dining Guide.

With the notable exception of Rose's Luxury, Capitol Hill is one of the city's least interesting neighborhoods for dining. As packed as the neighborhood is with places to eat, few of them tug at a chowhound's heartstrings. The situation took a turn for the affirmative this July with the debut of Garrison by Rob Weland.

Best known locally for his cooking at Cork Wine Bar and Poste Moderne Brasserie, the chef shines as never before in the first restaurant of his own. Three-bean salad is made supreme with anchovies sheathed in crackling tempura, tortellini shouts "summer!" with a filling of sweet corn, duck gets rubbed the right way (with lavender), and if there's a better steak salad than sliced bison with juicy tomatoes and sharp blue cheese, I have yet to call it. Most impressive of all is the acreage Weland devotes to vegetables on his menu, and the interesting treatments he has devised for eggplant (enhanced with tomatoes, dill and hazelnuts) and king trumpet mushrooms (paired with avocado, thyme and jalapeño).

Rose’s remains king of the Hill, but Garrison maintains a singular advantage: The new kid on the block takes reservations.

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This review was published in The Washington Post Magazine on Sept. 27, 2015.

By now, everyone who likes to eat knows that if you aren't POTUS or FLOTUS, you're going to have to wait in line for the chance to inhale a bowl of pork, peanuts and lychees at Rose's Luxury on Capitol Hill. Even if you make the effort, your timing has to be nearly perfect to score a table in the famously no-reservations hotspot.

My timing wasn’t perfect the last time I showed up at Rose’s. My luck, on the other hand, was impeccable: The American-themed Garrison had just opened down the street, replacing Tash, a Middle Eastern restaurant, on Barracks Row. And there were seats open. “Good evening!” the host welcomed me. A few courses in, the sting of rejection gave way to the joy of discovery: Garrison is a destination all its own.

I started counting exclamation marks from the start, first with a Downward Dog coaxed from gin, grapefruit and Campari, then with a bouquet of warm seeded breadsticks. Summer resonated in every bite of a salad of grill-striped peaches, dandelion greens and buttery burrata cheese, but an even more impressive first course produced an assortment of beans garnished with anchovies sheathed in a crisp, barely there tempura. I held my breath, waiting for the main courses; experience has taught me that appetizers tend to trump entrees in terms of creativity and pleasure, a few bites of something clever being more satisfying than a big plate of the same flavor over and over. But that time-tested theory went out the window with the first taste of a crisp-skinned duck, fragrant from a spice rub that included lavender, and wild king salmon that not only reflected good shopping but that any chef in Seattle would have been proud to call his own.

It didn't hurt that the server that night knew the menu like his cell number and that Tash had bequeathed a handsome (if narrow) dining room that ends with an open kitchen and an opportunity to see the talent behind the menu, Rob Weland. You might recognize the name from the chef's tenure at Poste Modern Brasserie in the Monaco hotel, where he planted an urban garden and fed parties whole beasts cooked outside, or from Cork Wine Bar on 14th Street NW, when the place still attracted the food cognoscenti. While I appreciated his efforts at both establishments, Weland's first solo venture, with his wife, Amy Garrett, finds him at the top of his game.

Chefs who don't buy the bulk of their ingredients off Sysco trucks like to tell you about the farmers whose fields they consider their larders, and Weland is no different. One Acre Farm in Boyds, Md., is the source of about a quarter of the produce the chef serves, a practice he figures he'll continue even in winter, given One Acre's intention of building hoop houses. What's exciting for the diner is the central real estate Weland devotes to vegetables on his menu. Following a trend I've noticed in my travels across this country this year, Garrison puts vegetables front and center instead of listing them as mere side dishes. They deserve the position. The equals to that three-bean salad with battered anchovies are soft roasted eggplant, hazelnuts and tomato on a swipe of house-made yogurt, which tastes as if it were lifted from a Paula Wolfert cookbook, and smoky grilled trumpet mushrooms partnered with creamy avocado, an unexpected combination lifted with thyme and jalapeño. (Can a visit from the health-minded first lady be far behind?)

Garrison’s alluring meatless dishes compel you to forgo flesh altogether, though it would be a shame to miss the rich chicken liver parfait or the flower-strewn fluke crudo, among other fine opening acts.

Weland knows he’s playing to a general audience, however, so he also cooks pasta, fish and steak to make everyone happy. Saucer-shaped ravioli split to reveal molten centers of ricotta, herbs including chives and chervil, roasted garlic and nettles in season. Add some lemon zest, and you’ve got a pasta that doesn’t stick around for long. In addition to the aforementioned king salmon, Garrison has also impressed me with roasted hake, served with Irish-inspired champ (potatoes freckled with scallions).

The best steak salad I’ve ever encountered came from this kitchen, which serves ruby slices of lean but juicy bison meat with a bounty of sliced summer tomatoes, pickled red onions and a wedge of sharp Danish blue cheese: four great ingredients turning in bravura performances, with no need for dressing (or a dishwasher, at least the way I return the plate).

Order fruit for dessert and the bonus might be a ceremony in which a server snips away parchment paper and pours ricotta cream over plump apricots, crushed pistachios and fresh lavender. Chocolate terrine and buttermilk panna cotta are more commonplace but still tug at chocoholics and pudding fans. The bill comes with a sweet something, buttery caramels on my last visit.

The name Garrison acknowledges the Marines on Barracks Row, a family ancestor and the reality of opening a new business, or “setting up camp,” says Weland.

He inherited a restaurant with such good bones, he didn’t have to do much more than display jars of preserved lemons, eggplant and turnips to make it his own. Overhead rafters lend warmth to the space; tilted mirrors on the walls give the restaurant a sense of expansiveness that a mere 60 or so seats don’t.

Not every meal at Garrison was as thrilling as the maiden one. Subsequent dinners have found hesitant waiters,
limp breadsticks (since replaced by consistently delicious Parker House rolls) and music of the variety and volume better suited to a closed kitchen. My point: Food is rarely the issue, and the few drawbacks are easy to fix.

Can’t get into Rose’s Luxury? Down the street awaits consolation that could well turn into competition.

3 stars

Location: 524 Eighth St. SE. 202-506-2445.

Open: Dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Monday.

Prices: Snacks and appetizers $4 to $16, main courses $23 to $30.

Sound check: 79 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.

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