Compared with the white-tablecloth nobility of Marcel’s and the Grand Central bustle of Brasserie Beck, Wildwood Kitchen is a modest suburban bungalow of a restaurant, nestled into a comfy strip center with a dry cleaner, barbershop and supermarket.
Okay, sure, the supermarket is a Balducci’s, my favorite place to drop Benjamins for groceries, and the strip center is located in Bethesda, where the median home price is nearly $750,000. This is the kind of suburb that chef-restaurateur Robert Wiedmaier could love. In fact, he already has; the man behind Marcel’s opened his Brasserie Beck-lite Mussel Bar there in 2010.
But let’s stick with the original pastoral motif. It fits Wildwood Kitchen, a cozy, 55-seat excursion into neighborhood dining, complete with a wood-and-woodland-themed main room and servers in jeans and plaid shirts. Just about the only diner who could consider this Kitchen a destination restaurant would be someone in, say, Rockville.
“It doesn’t need to be a special occasion to go out to dinner” here, Wiedmaier says.
True to its ambitions and location, Wildwood Kitchen attracts more of a family crowd, which, come to think of it, weaves nicely into the business fabric of the restaurant. Wiedmaier has extended partial ownership of Wildwood to five of his most loyal employees, including the sommelier (Moez Ben-Achour), director of private dining (Julie Albert), maitre d’ (Adnane Kebaier) and chef de cuisine (Paul Stearman) of Marcel’s. Together, these four, along with chef-partner Brian McBride, own 25 percent of Wildwood Kitchen. It’s a family affair.
“When you have great people, like I have, the right thing to do is give them what they deserve: a piece of the pie,” Wiedmaier says. “If everything goes as well as planned . . . they could all make a nice little income off this place.”
Based on my first visit, the partners would appear to have a lucrative future ahead of them. The menu — composed by Wiedmaier, McBride and Stearman and executed by Anthony Yannuzzi, a former Marcel’s sous-chef — is a small, strange beast. With its osso bucco and red snapper en papillote (en papillote!) entrees, it can feel simultaneously comforting and retro. Not self-consciously retro, but almost defiantly retro, as if those involved understand the value of old-fashioned plates.
Wiedmaier proudly waves French and Belgian flags at his other restaurants, but he’s digging deeper into Mediterranean cuisine at Wildwood, trying hard to replace his beloved butter with olive oil. His crisp Portuguese sardines, wearing thin baguette berets and lounging on a winter caponata, are exquisite; they’re so fresh their flavor still smacks of the sea, not added sardine-tin oil. His grilled octopus, cooked to a soft and toothsome texture, is skillfully spiked with a red-pepper-and-onion piperade. The roasted chicken is so moist it almost defies kitchen-cooking chemistry. Only that red snapper proves disappointing, the fillet turning dry and cottony shortly after it’s released from its parchment cocoon.
Wildwood Kitchen has a fully stocked bar, overseen by Giancarlo Cruz, but make sure he’s working if you want to order a signature cocktail. Cruz was off the night we sampled his ginger martini, whose Maker’s Mark base went down oh-so-smoothly — no doubt because we detected barely a speck of the pungent rhizome. It was perhaps a little too family-friendly.
In the Shops at Wildwood, 10223 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda. 301-571-1700. www.wildwoodkitchenrw.com . Entrees, $15 to $36. Tom Sietsema will return next week.