The harshest critic of the Old Angler’s Inn is one of its heirs.
Mark Reges, whose family has owned the property since 1957, says the Potomac restaurant had “fallen asleep over the decades.” The old couches in the front were smelly, the restrooms were pathetic, the shape of the kitchen so “lousy” — his word — that no good chef would want to work there. Not so long ago, little but its idyllic wooded setting attracted customers to Old Angler’s Inn.
“ ‘I love it. I haven’t been in 25 years,’ ” Reges says countless people told him.
It took the passing of Reges’s mother, Olympia, in 2005 to get her sons to address the restaurant’s many problems and “dedicate ourselves to putting money back in” to the family business, Reges says. Five years ago, he, wife Sara and brother Greg reopened the back garden. Next, they tackled the interior, starting with the ground floor. Out went those sad sofas, and in went a marble-topped bar purchased from the late Watergate Hotel.
In 2011, a fresh chef was introduced to the equation: Nick Palermo, 31, whose credits include the four-star CityZen, where as chef de partie he focused on salads and hot appetizers, and the late Inox in Tysons Corner, where Palermo served as sous-chef. Since his arrival, just about every edible reminder of the inn, save Caesar salad and creme brulee, has been erased from the menu. Three recent dinners from his revamped kitchen reveal a chef to watch and a restaurant to reconsider.
Merely approaching the inn — with its garlands of tiny lights in the trees and a patio with an open fire pit — is no longer the best way to appreciate the dowager. Forge on, through the front door, and you are met by gentlemen in suits who look delighted to see you and by cocktails that honor tradition.
Cross the Prime Rib downtown with 1789 in Georgetown, and you get a sense of what to expect at the made-over Old Angler’s Inn: a classic restaurant where no one has to shout to be heard and where “Days of Wine and Roses” is apt to serenade you as you spoon into a vichyssoise or slurp oysters on the half-shell.
They’re delicious, those oysters. I prefer them with more chill, but the briny Virginia bivalves are nevertheless quickly dispatched. Vichyssoise is just the sort of soup you expect to find in a restaurant of this vintage; Palermo tweaks the satisfying puree of potatoes and leeks with a few small shrimp in the center of the bowl. The only reason to order the crab cake, on the other hand, is for the electric coleslaw that serves as its escort. The pasteurized crab I got did not pass the sniff test.
The lone pasta, cavatelli with veal-beef-lamb meatballs, prompts me to ask the chef if it’s his mother’s recipe. His response — his father is a better cook than his mother, and the son is better than both — reminds me of the dangers of assumption. Palermo’s pasta is listed as a starter but proves substantial enough to pass for a main course. However you see it, get the dish, draped in a light and tangy tomato sauce. The combination is experienced like a family reunion in Little Italy.
Palermo puts even more of himself into the main courses. Fish is a particular draw. Sole scattered with capers and perched on Swiss chard comes with a soft herbed potato cake that nearly upstages the center of the plate. Even better is sauteed rockfish displayed on lentils made luscious with nuggets of chorizo and diced bell pepper. The chef gives pork loin an Asian accent, framing the sliced meat with fragrant basmati rice and a peanut sauce ignited with habanero.
This is food with gusto, and polish. Beef bavette brings thick, intensely flavored slices of “flap” meat, from the bottom of the sirloin, arranged with batons of carrots and bites of fried potato. In the company of a low fire in the ground-floor hearth, the main course makes its recipient supremely happy to have found himself at OAI, as the inn refers to itself in the manicured shrubbery outside.
The generous portions might cancel any plans for dessert. An igloo of a chocolate-peanut butter bombe suggests a candy bar. The confection makes my teeth itch. Better is the apple strudel, with its thick fruit and restrained sweetening.
It seems that word about the refreshed Old Angler’s Inn has yet to go beyond Potomac. The clientele on all my visits has included blondes with Chiclet-white teeth in the company of their proud peacocks; some nights, I’ve shared the golden-glowing dining room with only a handful of other patrons. To lure more traffic, Palermo offers deals throughout the week, including half-price burgers on Mondays, seafood linguine on Wednesdays and a changing vegan dish on Thursdays.
“Food is simply not the point at some restaurants, and Old Angler’s is one of them,” former Washington Post critic Phyllis C. Richman wrote in these pages — in 1982. Although the restaurant has a long history of relying on its exterior attributes for business, abundant TLC from the owners and a change of guard in the kitchen have reversed course.
10801 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac. 301-299-9097. oldanglers
Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday; brunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Lunch appetizers $8 to $14, main courses $14 to $19; dinner appetizers $10
to $28, main courses $21