I had Sex in the Suburbs—but it wasn’t what you’re thinking. Instead I enjoyed a concoction of chili-infused hibiscus vodka, prosecco and cranberry and lime juices.
The cocktail is one of the many “original creations from the minds of our mixologists,” says the menu at Quench, the Rockville restaurant and watering hole that opened in May.
Quench is the brainchild of North Potomac resident and owner Michael Holstein, who is also associate general counsel at WETA-TV in Washington, D.C. He says that frequent business trips to Los Angeles made him realize what the Bethesda area was missing—a “cool, urban” place outside the city where adults could get a bite and a drink.
The idea was to feature small plates and craft cocktails—creative alcoholic beverages made with premium spirits, fresh juices, seasonal ingredients, house-made syrups and bitters and unusual flavor pairings. It’s a trend that’s seeping out of cities and into the suburbs.
But the restaurant got off to a rough start when Holstein’s much-ballyhooed original staff—“chief cocktail officer” Stephen Oshana and executive chef Richard Gunter—were let go soon after it opened. Neither was a good fit and left to pursue other jobs.
Matt Allred, who formerly poured drinks at the District’s Bombay Club, Bourbon Steak and Brasserie Beck, is now in charge of the bar; and Evan Griffin, an alumnus of Black’s Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda and Buck’s Fishing and Camping in Northwest D.C., is heading up the kitchen.
So what’s the verdict?
First, Holstein’s shot at cool and urban hasn’t quite hit the mark. The dark décor lacks sophistication; the music, loud even during the dinner hour, is an unsoothing mix of newer artists and alternative music; and the drink menu headings (“ourz,” “theirz,” “soft drinkz”) and drink names (Thai Me Up, Metro-Textural, Wyatt Slurp) are a tad too cute. I haven’t been there late on a weekend night, but at least during dinner (even on a Friday evening) the place just doesn’t have a buzz.
Vibe aside, the food is inventive and actually pretty good. I’ll get to the drinks later.
I ate there twice when the summer menu was available, and discovered some pleasant surprises among the small plates. Whether it was the fried oysters, fried okra or crispy chickpeas, this kitchen knows how to fry, a technique that’s hard to get right.
French fries know no season, and that’s good. Hand-cut, double-fried and sprinkled with a mixture of fresh thyme, rosemary, parsley and lemon zest, these were well-executed versions of the popular (and frequently pedestrian) side dish.
Returning to try the fall menu, I found that the restaurant has wisely kept its Quench Burger intact. The 6-ounce, house-ground patty arrives with an unusually crusty exterior, but is juicy inside. Served on a pretzel bun, and topped with melted smoked cheddar and a fried onion ring, it does ground beef proud.
The Super Grilled Cheese thankfully is still on the menu, too (only for lunch, unfortunately). The chef’s pairing of smoked pimento cheese and Surryano ham (a Virginia version of Serrano) tastes as wonderful as it sounds, with its gooey smoky cheese and plentiful pieces of shaved ham.
The deviled eggs, topped with a swirl of that Surryano ham and a smattering of diced pickled peppers, are a lively rendition of this comeback dish. The perfectly fried baby latkes, offered on the summer menu with a drizzle of buttermilk dressing, now appear in a row atop apple butter, an equally nice companion.
The steamed clams, served with Griffin’s homemade bacon sausage (bacon in sausage form) and an addictive bread-dipping broth made with fennel and beer, were so appealing that they warranted two orders one night. I could also have eaten another order of the intriguing Brussels sprouts, served with thin slices of apples and chunks of duck bacon and topped with a cheesy foam.
But not all dishes are created equal. The summer roster had a number of duds and so-so items, and the fall menu’s corn beignets, chickpea tacos and currywurst all fell into those categories.
And the desserts need more attention.
The best of the bunch are the decadent Charm City Cookies, the chef’s successful take on Baltimore’s Berger Cookies. Quench’s version is spiked with toasted coconut and frosted with spiced rum chocolate ganache.
If the house-made Twinkie of the Day is lemon meringue, go for it. The ladyfinger- shaped buttermilk cake, filled with lemon curd and piped with a blowtorched meringue topping, is a glamorous answer to one of America’s favorite junk foods.
But if the flavor is Rocky Road or Chocolate Chip, better skip this dessert—these cakes were dry, and short on creamy filling. I wasn’t keen on the Choco-Frito sundae, either. It’s a clever idea, but both the Mexican chocolate ice cream and cinnamon whipped cream lacked creaminess. Ditto for the bourbon caramel pecan ice cream on the apple tart.
Now, for the drinks.
Given the name and concept of the restaurant, plus the cost of a cocktail ($12 or $13 each), the beverages should make a statement. At other suburban venues where I’ve sampled upscale cocktails—Co2 Lounge, Potomac’s Founding Farmers, Sugo Cicchetti, Black’s Bar & Kitchen, among them—the drinks look spunky and special. The glassware and garnishes at Quench seem pretty standard.
The Kentucky Irby even dissolved into an unattractive (and equally unappetizing) mess before I could finish it. The mint foam atop the gin-based drink separated into little whitish flecks and sank to the bottom of the old-fashioned glass, swirling around like spoiled milk in a cup of coffee.
I showed the waitress—lovely and personable, just like the other servers—only to be told that it’s the type of cocktail that needs to be drunk quickly (suggesting that she had seen this happen before). I ordered another drink, but was nonetheless charged for the flaky fluid.
After sampling about a dozen cocktails at Quench, I didn’t find their unusual ingredients and combinations to be a fitting complement to the menu, which has its own creative slant. It was kind of a flavor overload.
Sure, the Quench Cocktail—vodka, simple syrup, Rishi peach blossom tea, pomegranate liqueur, paté de fruit—was light and slightly fruity and went down easily; and the Hemingway Daiquiri, made with light rum, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, grapefruit juice, lime juice and Orgeat syrup, was a pleasant way to get a buzz. But I’d rather have just a beer or a glass of wine with the sweet-potato gnocchi and its fresh ricotta, pistachios and sage butter, and save the cocktails for pretzels.
That said, if I lived or worked close to Traville Gateway Drive, Quench would be a welcome addition to my neighborhood. But for me, the restaurant is probably not worth the drive. I’ll have my Sex in the Suburbs at home in Chevy Chase.
9712 Traville Gateway Drive, Rockville, 301-424-8650, quenchnation.com
Hours: Open 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday, 5 p.m. to midnight Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Prices: Small plates range from $3 to $13; sandwiches, from $9 to $12.
Reservations: None. But for large groups or special occasions, contact: Michael@quenchnation.com.
Wine, Beer & Cocktails: Focus is on creative cocktails that include seasonal specialties, guest contributions, low-calorie versions, mocktails and a couple of selections for kids. There are 14 wines by the glass, a decent selection of bottles, and a changing array of on-tap and canned craft beers.
Favorite dishes: Grilled cheese, Quench Burger, french fries, latkes, deviled eggs, steamed clams, Brussels sprouts, seared rockfish, sweet potato gnocchi
Favorite desserts: Charm City Cookies, Lemon Meringue Twinkie
Favorite drinks: Quench Cocktail, Hemingway Daiquiri, Ginger Rogers, Sex in the Suburbs
Good place to go for: People who live or work nearby who don’t want to wait for a table at Cava (across the street)
Parking: Street parking, rear lot, shopping center lot
Carole Sugarman is the magazine’s food editor.