If you’re the kind of diner who likes bonding with the staff, have I got a restaurant for you!
“Hello, my friend!” gushes our attendant at the new City Perch in North Bethesda. Her greeting is so extravagant, my real friend and dining companion looks behind him to see whom the server is verbally bear-hugging. For the hour or so we’re under her torture, er, watch, Tiffany is on us like white on rice. How’s the cocktail? How’s the bread? How’s the appetizer? How’s the first bite of the entree? Can I get you anything else? When she reappears for the nth time, I wonder what else she could possibly inquire about. So I play defense and let her know the table is perfectly square and the ice is well chilled, thank you very much. (Now please, can we just eat our food?)
City Perch, part of the splashy new Pike & Rose development, shares its second-story roost with iPic, the luxury cinema featuring leather seats and an in-theater menu designed by Sherry Yard, one of the best-known pastry chefs in the country, with nearly 20 years spent working for the acclaimed Wolfgang Puck in California. The restaurant’s executive chef is Matt Baker, late of the Occidental Grill in Washington. The two collaborated on the savories, which for the most part are embellished comfort food; breads and desserts are the handiwork of Yard.
If 10 bucks for bread sounds excessive, the arrival of a slab of wood arranged with a bakery’s worth of seductions will change your mind. Parmesan-enriched popovers stream steam when they’re torn apart. Adding to their pleasure is a drift of sun-dried tomato butter for gilding. Warm Chinese buns are tasty with scallions and tastier with a lick of whipped butter flavored with sea salt. Craggy biscuits flavored with sage and orange and delivered with maple pecan butter are a tad sweet for my taste, which didn’t stop me from devouring one. The pièce de résistance is cornbread slathered with tangy whipped goat cheese and flecked with baby lavender.
I hate to break it to Vidalia, but City Perch has wrested from the Southern restaurant the distinction of best bread service in Washington.
As unusual as the bread program is the setting, reached via elevator or escalator. Outside fire lamps, indoor rafters and reclaimed wood suggest a ski lodge at night; the area around the bar, where you might be asked to cool your heels on a busy night, resembles the lobby of a cozy hotel, at least until the club music comes on and normal conversation becomes difficult.
French onion soup, shrimp cocktail, “bratwurst in a blanket” — the appetizers embrace a grab bag of notions. Are the line cooks snickering when they’re preparing the German sausage sheathed in crisp leaf pastry? The link borders on something Trojan might use for testing purposes. Eating it is less entertaining. Like a number of dishes here, this one tilts sweet with sugar in its braised cabbage. Crab cakes are sandwiched with thin coins of brioche, fetching clasps for seafood that doesn’t have much flavor. The first course I’d return for is the simplest: shrimp cocktail, elevated from the sea with its lemongrass cocktail sauce and green goddess dressing.
Baker knows not to mess with some good things. His pork chop, procured from Ecofriendly Farms, comes to the table with a citrus-honey glaze that lets the juicy meat shine. His free-range chicken, treated to a day-long soak in wine, lemons and fresh herbs, emerges from the oven crisp of skin and succulent throughout.
Unless you’re on the Paleo diet, you’ll want to order a side dish. The entrees don’t come with so much as a parsley garnish. Brussels sprouts have become so commonplace, I’m surprised McDonald’s hasn’t put them on the menu. City Perch makes the vegetable taste new again by tossing the fried orbs with miso dressing, caramelized apple and pecorino cheese — a seeming shout out to the United Nations that throws in some crushed peanuts for texture. Potatoes can be sampled as fries, nuggets, within a shepherd’s pie or whipped with three white cheeses. The last, a tribute to the French aligot, stretches like taffy when potatoes are transferred from bowl to plate. Creamed spinach should keep its crunchy shallots but drop the fried egg (haven’t we already said good-bye to eggs on everything?), and carrots striped with salsa verde taste sweet enough to qualify as dessert.
“I see everyone has an amazing dinner,” a manager says as he surveys the dishes on our table one night — a description that doesn’t come close to my reality. Other misfires have included salt-saturated scallops, a parsnip-apple soup with duck confit that could have been a pureed Thanksgiving buffet and a supposedly za’atar-spiced lamb shoulder missing any sign of the promised Middle Eastern seasoning.
Thank goodness, then, for bread. And drinks, including some fun punches.
Lest I sound like a curmudgeon in need of a chill pill, let me say I don’t mind a friendly server and some banter with my meals. But Tiffany isn’t the exception at City Perch, she’s the rule. When, on another visit, I order the duck, one of several “entrees-for-two,” another server coos, “Yum! I’m so excited.” (And no, she wasn’t a Pointer sister.) Brace yourself if you’re here on a date or for business, because you’re going to have an uninvited guest at the table: Whoever waits on you. Like more restaurants than I can count, this one confuses face time with good service.
Reading the whimsical dessert list, you’ll be tempted to ask for one of each Yard-spiration. The best performances are turned in by a cream puff filled with a choice of ice cream and crowned with spun sugar, and baked Alaska pie fashioned from pumpkin gelato, tufts of soft meringue and a rich gingerbread base. Steer clear of the banana chocolate chip souffle, its center a sad, achingly sweet mush that resembles underbaked banana bread.
Man does not live by bread alone. But bread (almost) alone is why you want to spend time with City Perch, dinner theater at its most saccharine.
Location: 11830 Grand Park Ave., North Bethesda. 301-231-2310. www.cityperch.com.
Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $9 to $18, main courses $16 to $38.
Sound check: 75 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.
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