Credit: Photo credit: Stacy Zarin-Goldberg

The owners of Nest Cafe deserve an “A” for opening a neighborhood restaurant that’s cozy, congenial and has something for everyone. Graying wine drinkers, families with toddlers, girlfriends on a night out, couples relaxing after work—Nest is a lively roosting place for all.

Friends and partners Josh Pollak, a builder; Shahab Ravery, a commercial real estate owner; and Jeremy Hummer, a restaurant veteran and former wine importer, also get an “A” for their menu concept: a simple selection of salads, pizzas, pastas and some sandwiches and entrees at incredibly reasonable prices. What’s more, Nest gets high marks for its pleasant and efficient servers, and for a décor that’s sophisticated enough to make kid-toting parents feel far from fast food. The family-friendly nature of the place is not an accident. The owners all have young children, and their wives pitch in with the business.

But like the popular student whose personality surpasses his intellect, Nest’s cooking doesn’t always make the grade. Sometimes there are flashes of brilliance. Much of the time, the kitchen’s work is just average.

When Nest opened in February—after Pollak had gutted and renovated the small space that formerly was home to Louisiana Express—two recent graduates of The Culinary Institute of America were doing the cooking. That arrangement lasted a little more than a month, according to Ravery. Now, Hummer manages the kitchen, spending about half the time cooking. Also at the stove is chef Eric Rosas, from Rockville’s now defunct Amada Amante, where Ravery and Hummer were two of the partners, and Keswick Henry, who had been a chef at a couple of high-end resorts in Jamaica.

I don’t know whether the personnel change had anything to do with it, but I found the food some what more polished at dinner about a month after the restaurant opened than I did during subsequent visits. In fact, the beet and parsnip risotto, one of the best dishes I tried, was a Culinary Institute of America recipe from the departed chefs and has since been removed from the menu (it was too labor intensive and was slowing down the small and busy kitchen, Ravery says). Not that you have to be a cooking school grad to be a successful chef. Hardly. But handing out a report card might spur this well liked restaurant to get on the culinary honor roll.

Fried foods. Somebody in the kitchen must have a doctorate in deep frying. The crispy calamari and artichokes live up to the “crispy” title, especially the artichoke hearts, which transform into delectable, crunchy wisps. Ditto the garlicky shoestring french fries, among the most addictive spuds around. They’re served with the sandwiches and pair up nicely with the plump and plentiful mussels for a terrific entree. For dessert, the tre bombolinos (three, golf ball-size Italian doughnuts), one served plain, one drizzled with Nutella, the third enlivened with strawberry compote, are a winning trifecta. Grade: A

Pizza. Love the thin crust. These pizzas are light and easy to eat. But some of the toppings need improvement—the grilled asparagus was bitter, woody and hard to chew. The tomato sauce seemed thin and anemic. Grade: B

Pasta. None of the other four pasta dishes I tried were as inspiring as the no-longer-available beet risotto. Comforting and serviceable, but nothing special. Grade: B

Salads. Nicely dressed greens, but too much lettuce and too few other ingredients for my taste. The señora salad was mostly arugula, with a couple of candied walnuts and a few meager strips of Manchego cheese. The spinach salad might satisfy Popeye, but people looking for interest and texture will be bored with just a few candied almonds. The grilled romaine is a great idea, but a work in progress—my order had only a barely discernible grilled flavor. Grade: B

Hamburger. Difficult to get your hands around, this big burger was a greasy disappointment. The meat lacked a char-grilled, beefy flavor and the onions needed more cooking time to better caramelize. Grade: C

Grilled cheese of the week. I guess I hit the kitchen on a bad grilled cheese week. The grilled raspberry and sweetened goat cheese sounded like an odd idea…and it was. The raspberries melted like splattered paint, and the sweetened goat cheese made the whole thing taste like misbegotten French toast. The waitress took it off the tab. Grade: D

Crème brûleé and other desserts. Raspberry crème brûleé was a dessert special one night, and although the kitchen got the hardened sugar crust right, it flunked the custard. With a consistency more akin to softened ice cream, it hadn’t set properly. The waitress took it off the tab. Grade: D

Better to order the tre bombolinos, or the cookie for two—a giant chocolate chip cookie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Warning: The chocolate chip bread pudding is heavy, and should only be attempted after a salad.

Comments: Crank up the flavors, leave some things to cook a little longer, tweak a few of the dishes, eliminate a few others. Nest Cafe has potential. With some more work, it could rise to the top of its class.

Highlights of Nest Cafe

4921 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda
301-718-6378
www.nestwinebarcafe.com

Open

Open for lunch Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Open for dinner Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Open for Sunday brunch, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Open for drinks and light snacks Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Prices

Brunch: $3.95 to $8.95.
Lunch and dinner: entrees $9.95 to $13.95; pizza $10.95 to $13.95.

Reservations

Accepted for brunch and lunch, and for dinner on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. No dinner reservations accepted Thursday through Sunday, but you can call 30 minutes ahead, and the restaurant will try to save you the next available table.

Wine List

Each of the entrees is listed with a suggested wine accompaniment—by the glass from $5.95 to $7.95. For $9.95, you can also get 21/2-ounce pours of any three wines from the by-the-glass selection. Many bottles are less than $30, and most are under $40. California and European choices, plus a few from South America and Australia/New Zealand.

Favorite Dishes

Crispy calamari and artichokes, mussels and fries, prosciutto pizza

Favorite Desserts

Tre bombolinos, cookie for two

Good Place to Go For

An unpretentious, reasonably priced meal in a homey atmosphere. Bring the kids, the cousins, whomever. This is not the place for a quiet dinner over the weekend, when it can get crowded, noisy and hard to hear. It is a place for drinks, dessert and live music (soft reggae, Friday nights, 8:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.; soft acoustic rock Saturday nights, also 8:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.).

Parking/Getting There

Metered public parking lot east of the intersection of Bethesda Avenue and Arlington Road

Carole Sugarman covers the restaurant scene for Bethesda Magazine.