When a server at Beuchert’s Saloon overhears a diner mispronounce the name of her employer on Capitol Hill, she turns on a smile and sweetly corrects him. “It’s BOO-kerts,” she says. “So when you tell your friends about it, you’ll say it right.”
Service is likely the first and final thing you’ll notice at the narrow newcomer from the former chef de cuisine of the late PS 7’s, Andrew Markert, and three friends. “I got lucky,” Markert says of the effervescent young troupe that fusses over customers in the restaurant, which opens with a walnut bar that brings “Gunsmoke” to mind and segues into a cozy dining room, a mere 25 seats big. With ease, staff members chat up the drinks and what the chef calls “farm American” cooking. They can make history buffs out of you, too.
The name derives from the building’s past. The first Beuchert’s was opened at this address in 1890 by a German immigrant, John Ignatius Beuchert; during Prohibition, a speak-easy operated there.
These days, a subtle Old West ambiance prevails, thanks to co-owner August Paro, a former Los Angeles-based set designer. His layout embraces brass rails, plank floors, vintage-print wallpaper and antique chandeliers that cast an amber glow over the bare tables. The scenery calls for a tumbler of whiskey, but an urban cowboy might be inclined to toss back a Vieux Carre, among the dozen or so sophisticated signature cocktails.
Here to eat? Bone marrow is enjoying a rich run these days. The version at Beuchert’s helps explain its popularity. Beef bones are propped upright on their plate, in a frame of a parsley salad that picks up crunch and bite from pickled pistachios. The marrow comes with cushions of grilled bread for slathering. Fat and salt and brightness and crunch: It’s all very easy to dispatch.
Sausage boards are hard to escape, too, but frankly, the charcuterie here is not so special. The finocchio (fennel salami) is probably the best of the mere three sliced meats, and the pickled carrots and green beans don’t have much spunk.
A better entry point is a cocktail made under the silent watch of Mike and Ike. They’re enormous bison heads discovered by Paro on eBay and displayed side-by-side above the marble-topped bar that became one of the most popular watering holes on the Hill when it opened in February.
Carolina gold rice gets billing over lobster in a first course. The chef says he thinks the delicately sweet short-grain rice — a loose base for roasted lobster tail and poached claw meat — is a “cool ingredient.” Its rich lobster sauce could stand more salt.
Even in late March, Washington felt like winter some days, but the often-heavy fare at Beuchert’s intensified the sensation that spring might never come. Several hearty dishes — oxtail tagliatelle and braised lamb — come in two sizes, and this diner found the smaller portion to be sufficient. The pasta, listed as a “snack,” gathers winy meat and hedgehog mushrooms on house-made tagliatelle. Its crunch comes from toasted hazelnuts. The lamb, braised in orange juice, is as much about citrus as meat. Tender gnocchi and spinach in the mix help even out the score.
Curiously, roast chicken tastes more like turkey, an impression bolstered by the entree’s homey sage-infused gravy.
Fish is my preferred path. Striped bass with a crackling skin comes on sliced potatoes cooked in garlic oil, an entree embellished with soft squid rings and a lemony cream sauce that demonstrates the chef’s interest in using pastry techniques for savory food.
The kitchen grills a nice hamburger. The well-seasoned patty could use a sturdier bun, but I dig the handful of french fries that hide a surprise: ravigote (mayonnaise sharpened with capers) underneath the golden potatoes. “Dig down and dip them,” a server coaches first-timers to the fun. We do, and we can’t stop.
The aromas of bacon and syrup waft through the saloon at brunch, when the light of day better allows diners to take in Beuchert’s design pluses. The concise weekend morning menu includes a tender omelet with goat cheese, mushrooms and chicken that tastes out of place in the fold, and a “sammie” of sliced pork belly, fried egg and cheese that comes with crisp round potato cakes striped with lemony hollandaise. Stiff pancakes are made palatable with a brush of apple butter, crisp bacon and a tiny pitcher of excellent maple syrup.
A collection called “Treats,” says the chef, references “things I always wanted as a kid” from the novelty section of the grocery store. Desserts therefore include riffs on popsicles and an elegant house-made candy bar using chocolate ganache. One visit finds a s’mores-flavored confection served with a swipe of marshmallow creme in its bowl; another meal finds a tangerine popsicle that tastes only marginally of the fruit and is served stick-side-up in a thick and dull vanilla paste. Pie makes an appearance, too, because Markert thinks a slice goes well with the saloon theme. Chess pie in a slip of a crust would be better if it had less sugar, but I like the orange note that brightens the filling.
The pie sums up eating here. Every dish has something to like about it, but also something that keeps you from giving the kitchen a high-five. Ideas trump their execution.
Throughout one spring dinner, it rained in sheets outside. Strolling to the front of the restaurant, swarmed with drinkers at the bar, I crossed my fingers hoping my umbrella hadn’t disappeared. Oh, happy day: A staff member had it ready for me in his outstretched hand. Was I busted as a mouth for hire or was this just another serving of the saloon’s hospitality?
The place nails the charm test. But if Beuchert’s wants diners to talk up “BOO-kerts,” the kitchen needs to catch up.
623 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-733-1384. beuchertssaloon.com.
OPEN:Dinner 5:30 to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday; brunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
METRO: Eastern Market.
PRICES: Appetizers $9 to $16, main courses $11 to $28.
SOUND CHECK: 77 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.
A source of ingredients for Beuchert’s: East Oaks Organics Farm, a family business in Poolesville, co-owned by Brendan McMahon, another partner in the saloon.