A recent uptick in restaurant activity in or near Bethesda has introduced more Tex-Mex, Japanese and contemporary American flavors. Waiting for the newcomers — Mi Cocina, Yuzu and the reinvented Persimmon, among others — to settle in, I returned to some familiar places nearby to check out the results of their spring cleaning.
Food Wine & Co. recently swapped its black-and-white shades for awnings in burgundy with red, yellow and gold stripes, a move that won the American bistro at least a couple of new guests: neighbors across the street who told chef Michael Harr that they had never noticed the place until the fabric switch.
Never mind that the Bethesda restaurant opened in September 2011.
Easier than ever to spot from outside, Food Wine & Co. also looks and tastes fresher through the doors, where servers navigate the high-ceilinged dining room in new aprons and the menu reads like a list you’d see in fashion-forward Logan Circle or Shaw. News flash: Food Wine & Co. has begun serving bone marrow, frog legs and octopus.
“We want to cater to our guests in a different light,” says Harr of the changes.
It helps that the chef, whose original mandate was to appeal to the masses, warmed up his audience with pizza, burgers and steamed mussels before introducing what he calls a more “progressive” menu this spring. The fried artichokes of his first term remain, but otherwise, if you only ate at Food Wine & Co. early on, you’ll note more than a change of hues in the restaurant.
Harr’s cognac-spiked chicken liver torchon has me seeing more stars than before. The first course, a frequent special, is presented as four elegant totems with bruleed tops and snips of asparagus and zingy cherries signaling spring. Poached sliced octopus paired with sauteed broccoli rabe is racy with chili oil and crumbled chorizo: surf and turf for 2013.
The soups will keep your spoons busy through the last drop, too. One evening I’m swooning over a bowl of coconut-and-carrot soup, its vivid surface bobbing with a little island of crunchy greens and biting with a slick of jalapeño oil. Another night, a vichyssoise coaxed from cauliflower and pear gets my full attention.
Salads and crudos pack the selections. Both concepts come together on a plate of sheer slices of cucumber paved with thin folds of raw yellowtail fish, a lush combination ringed with a chili-sesame dressing and decked out with radish slices and fava beans.
Harr says, “We’re not going too crazy.” In other words, a diner can still order deviled eggs and a steak here. Those eggs have been upgraded from picnic fare; the new version finds whites tinted red from wine and a cradle of mustardy mashed yolks zingy with chow-chow and crunchy with bacon bits. My beef of choice is the flatiron steak, which picks up flavor from its marinade of rosemary and garlic, and sidesteps the usual mashed or fried potato for an accompaniment of spoonbread. The starch, baked with a basil leaf on top, reminds me of a corn muffin. Harr updates the steak further with a carrot escabeche, because you can’t be an American bistro these days without pickling one or three items on your menu.
Allow me to winnow the many choices down for you. Beet risotto with vivid beet greens and pinches of goat cheese and fried pork is the color of Christmas. But the busy appetizer tastes more like a way to use leftovers than a finessed recipe. (The pork is dry and chewy.) A main course of Arctic char with wilted arugula, pickled red onion and pistachio vinaigrette has far less pizazz than its description reads, and seared scallops surfing on a limp bolt of squid-ink-blackened tagliatelle and a gloppy saffron emulsion tastes like the chef’s night off.
That said, delights outnumber disappointments. The former includes a “30 Minute” roast chicken that’s worth the wait (good call on its lemon-dill spaetzle, chef) and a passion fruit-caramel custard served with a refreshing coconut sorbet and lacy citrus cookie.
Food Wine & Co.’s bar, one of my favorite watering holes in Bethesda, is typically busy and for good reasons. The drinks are well made, the lighting is honeyed, the space is carved into niches that allow for a splash more privacy than at most bars, and the broad leather stools encourage “another round, please.”
7272 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. 301-652-8008.foodwineandco. com.
OPEN:Sunday 4 to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday 4 to 11 p.m.
PRICES:Dinner appetizers $6 to $13, main courses $13 to $26.
SOUND CHECK: 83 decibels/Extremely loud.
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The ornate carved screens in the window at Passage to India suggest lace. A door inlaid with beautiful metal tiles signals a grand entrance. Dressing up the dining room are spice jars behind a long banquette and a life-size portrait of a long-ago maharaja.
Few Bethesda restaurants set the scene for their menus as thoroughly as this one, which was launched 10 years ago (Happy anniversary!) by chef-owner SudhirSeth. A veteran of Heritage India in Washington, he recently rewrote his script so that more than half the dishes are new.
Seth’s broad, gold-and-brown list divides the riches of the subcontinent into four parts, starting with the cooking of the North (picture eggplant stewed with tomatoes and onions) and continuing with the South (think vegetables in coconut sauce), the East (chicken cooked in yogurt with cloves and cardamom) and the West, where the food was influenced in part by Portuguese settlers.
That’s a lot of destinations to consider. No matter where you travel on the tour, however, you’re apt to find something to make you want to go back. A cheat sheet of fresh ideas embraces jackfruit in a gravy of cloves, fenugreek and black cardamom from the North; tilapia made tangy with tamarind and sweet with onions from the South; soothing plantain dumplings, gently biting with cayenne, from the East; and tender chicken, succulent with a sauce of mint and cilantro, saluting the West. The tandoor-baked breads make swell sops for the curries; a colorful side of housemade pickles is a lot of flavor, and fire, for just under $5. Each main course is bolstered with a fragrant scoop of rice and a pretty salad of cabbage and crisp bell peppers.
Sound perfect? Not quite. Meats tend to be overcooked, and some servers know their lines better than others. But Passage to India is an ideal place to veg out — for starters, cue the fritters and the three-bean patties — and as regal as scenes get in Bethesda.
4931 Cordell Ave., Bethesda. 301-656-3373.passagetoindia. info.
OPEN:Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner begins at 5:30 p.m. daily.
PRICES: Appetizers $5.25 to $12.95, main courses $14.95 to $22.95; lunch specials $8.95 to $11.95.
SOUND CHECK: 69 decibels/Conversation is easy.