The results of my 14th Annual Fall Dining Guide are in, and as in years past, many were called, but few were chosen: Forty restaurants made the cut to be on my list of favorites around Washington. Among the dozens of places I auditioned in the months leading up to my deadline were the following three establishments. Though they didn’t make the guide this season, these also-rans count enough charms for me to consider them anew next year — and for you to check them out at your leisure.
It’s impossible to walk into Jackie’s in Silver Spring and not feel a little lighter than before you opened the door. The lipstick pinks and smiley-face yellows of the groovy bar and dining room also go a long way to erase the memory of what had been a brick-walled auto garage in another life. The Jackie’s of 2013 channels “The Brady Bunch” and, on its best days, James Beard, too.
The name on the marquee belongs to Jackie Greenbaum, the effervescent restaurateur who has ginned up the dining scene elsewhere with El Chucho in Columbia Heights and more recently, Bar Charley in Dupont Circle. A change of chefs in May put Adam Harvey, 29, in charge of the open kitchen in Silver Spring. Late of the Wine Kitchen in Frederick, Harvey brought with him a solid résumé that included Volt, also in Frederick, and Marcel’s in Washington, where he had been a line cook.
Here’s what you want for dinner right now: buttermilk fried calamari in a jumble with capers, hazelnuts and curls of Parmesan. And wide ribbons of pasta with tender pork cheeks, each bite rich with wine, garlic and tomato in its seasoning. The rage for Vietnamese banh mi is addressed with crisp fried chicken and vinegared vegetables in a brioche roll that’s baked right here. The food and drink go down better when you’re supping in the pillow-strewn lounge and being watched over by smooth servers of whom Washington could use, oh, about 1,000 more.
A few dishes suggest Harvey is back at the posh Volt or Marcel’s. Chicken liver spread on wisps of crostini with stewed mustard seeds, and embedded with sails of fried chicken skin, is one of the most elegant versions of the nosh I’ve ever seen. The kid’s got flair.
But not consistency. Shortly after Harvey stepped into the kitchen, I endured a meal of dry branzino and leathery oysters (in a po’ boy) at Jackie’s. But it was a dinner salvaged by a sumptuous corn-and-crab chowder. Were the main dishes that night a fluke? My last meal, in September, suggests they were. My last tastes also made me hungry to return.
Despite all the fresh choices for lunch and dinner on Capitol Hill — Beuchert’s Saloon and Tash among the recent crop — Montmartre remains, with some qualifications, my ready response to the question of where to eat in the neighborhood. The kitchen has a knack for dishing out style and substance on (most) every plate.
Lentil soup can be one-note eating. Montmartre dresses up its bowl with bits of prosciutto, parsley oil and a drift of thyme yogurt. The sweetness of scallops is foiled with chorizo and grapefruit oil; the dish is further elevated with a warm salad of shaved cauliflower, asparagus, toasted almonds and more. Hanger steak is cooked just as you ask and served in thick slices over a potato and goat cheese gratin that would be better if the vegetable had been cooked a few minutes longer. (Some of the potato slices had a slight crunch.)
The restaurant, now 12 years in business, could use a little nip and tuck. (I’d start by painting over the sponged yellow walls and dropping the accordion music from the soundtrack.) While I’m on the subject of enhancements, is it too much to ask for butter that isn’t served rock-hard in foil packets, better bread and a lemon tart that is actually tangy and sans a gummy crust? Diners need to call the bistro to book a reservation. Just remember to say your name along with the number in your party and the time you want; a gentleman answering the phone ahead of a recent visit didn’t bother asking.
Montmartre’s standing menu of country pât é, garlicky snails and duck breast is augmented by a few specials detailed on a chalkboard near the entrance. Almost always there’s something I’m pleased to encounter. Sauteed calamari with chickpeas, fingerling potatoes and tarragon pesto made a strapping first course that, with less olive oil in the toss, merits a permanent place on the list. Chef Brian Wilson, formerly with Tallula in Clarendon, tends to serve American-style portions.
This restaurant lacks the sweep of Le Diplomate in Logan Circle, my favorite French destination these days, or the elan of Et Voila!, the intimate dining room with a Belgian twist in the Palisades. But Montmartre serves those who live nearby well, and sometimes “good” is satisfaction enough.
Scott Drewno aces dumplings. One of the most difficult decisions a diner has to make at the Source , the chef’s pan-Asian restaurant next to the Newseum, is which edible pouch not to order. Chicken- and mushroom-plumped purses are just as happy-making as supple wheat wrappers hiding pork belly and fresh ginger, after all. The latter dumplings are especially appealing, splashed as they are with Chinese black vinegar and chili oil.
Of late, however, my affection for the one-time three-star destination has lessened. A racy base of chilies and tomato and a sprightly crown of julienned vegetables do their best to prop up an otherwise dull and mushy crab cake. Even the signature lacquered duck lacks luster; its mahogany skin is thick and stiff rather than sheer and snappy.
The kitchen does better with accompaniments: the long, gravy-swollen noodles that ride to the table with that duck are good enough to star on their own. Wok-cooked steak au poivre gets its explosive flavor from Sichuan peppercorns, and as much as I like the main event, its charred corn salad is the dish that gets scraped clean from the plate (as well it should for $45). Tandoor-cooked tautog, or blackfish, perched on a mute mash of eggplant delivers an Indian misfire.
Pass on the cheesecake, but find space for a slab of carrot cake, its many layers alternating white with spice (and enough for a party to share). The two-story, glass-wrapped Source remains as sleek as ever, and the hostesses couldn’t be sweeter, but the restaurant’s lofty tabs and occasionally indifferent food suggest you’ll walk, rather than rush, back.
Read about the 40 restaurants that made it into Tom’s 2013 Fall Dining Guide.
Next week: J&G Steakhouse in D.C.
8081 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring.
PRICES: Appetizers $8 to $13, main courses $16 to $27.
72 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.
327 Seventh St. SE.
PRICES: Lunch appetizers $7.95 to $10.95, main courses $10.95 to $24.95; dinner appetizers $7.95 to $11.95, main courses $18.95 to $27.95.
76 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.
575 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.
PRICES: Dinner appetizers $13 to $19, main courses $23 to $49.