March-April 2013 | Reviews

Club Med

Wildwood Kitchen provides a welcome retreat, with a menu of (somewhat) healthier choices and plenty of ambience

When chef Robert Wiedmaier announced in February 2012 that he was planning a new Bethesda locale, his idea was to open a neighborhood restaurant featuring healthy Mediterranean cuisine—dishes made with lots of olive oil, vegetables and fish, but no butter or cream.

The concept has evolved since then.

After three visits to his Wildwood Kitchen, which opened in November, I can’t say I’d characterize the place as overly healthy or strictly Mediterranean.

Indeed, Wiedmaier’s business partner Brian McBride says the result is “more Mediterranean-inspired,” and “the idea is a lighter cuisine than people are used to in our other restaurants.” Olive oil predominates in the cooking, while the use of butter and cream is limited but not eliminated, McBride says.

Whatever the fat content of the food, Wildwood Kitchen sports a super-lovely look, providing a warm, sophisticated and welcome addition to the upscale Wildwood Shopping Center. Booths with hunter green leather seats and sage-colored suede backs line the sides of the dining room, and a photographic frieze, depicting butterflies, deer and birds, wraps around the upper portion of the walls. Overhead, wood beams and lighting fixtures that resemble naked tree branches add to the rustic theme. Servers, dressed in jeans and matching plaid shirts, are low-key and professional.

And while my early visits indicated a somewhat uneven kitchen, there were enough highlights on the menu—as well as plenty of customers—to make me confident that Wiedmaier has another Bethesda hit on his hands. His Mussel Bar & Grille also opened to a packed house, in July 2010, and his other metropolitan-area restaurants—Marcel’s, Brasserie Beck, BRABO and BRABO Tasting Room—continue to be go-to spots.

The lunch and dinner menus at Wildwood Kitchen are short and similar—with only about eight appetizers and eight entrées—making for limited choices, particularly since not all the dishes have widespread appeal. The menus were still being fine-tuned when I ate there; a few more sandwiches and salads were added for the lunch crowd, although I found them less interesting and successful than the entrées. Vegetables get A-plus treatment, and the kitchen has likewise mastered “crisp.”

For appetizers, zero in on the tender grilled octopus, served with a lively piperade of red and yellow peppers, red onion and prosciutto. The littleneck clams, also available as a lunch entrée, top soft ribbons of pappardelle pasta and a flavorful sauce of chanterelles and broccoli rabe pesto. Fresh sardines are hard to come by on menus in this area, so fans should dive into the crisp Portuguese fish here, although the equally assertive caponata that accompanies them pushes the dish’s pungency over the edge. A less adventurous beet salad is a pretty and commendable version of this staple, with chunks of red and yellow beets, soft clouds of goat cheese, crunchy nuts, pickled red onion rings and red wine vinaigrette.    

As for main courses, the best was the pan-seared sea bream, an inviting contrast of textures and colors with its crispy skin, diced ratatouille and bright green sea of basil pesto. The duck confit, a special one night, is hardly a healthful dish, but the soft leg meat, served over smoky lentils, was well worth the calories.

Ditto for the short ribs, a comforting collection of tender beef, baby carrots, pearl onions and a mustard-colored, root vegetable purée. And while the grilled hanger steak was a decent-enough rendition of this popular cut, the dish gets pumped up with terrific crispy kale punched with garlic.

Other dishes needed polishing, at least early on.

The blue hubbard squash soup suffered from a thin, watery consistency, desperately needing its sprinkling of pancetta and the dollop of cardamom-scented mirepoix. I loved the char-grilled scallops, but the rest of the appetizer was an odd mishmash of eggplant jam, sundried tomatoes, artichokes and “broken” (un-emulsified) balsamic vinaigrette.

The lunchtime crab salad was overwhelmed by its heavy coating of horseradish and crème fraiche dressing; the Caesar salad would have been sleeker with fewer clumps of Parmesan; and the dinnertime red snapper en papillote tasted bland, boring and not worth navigating out of its parchment jacket.

The desserts were OK, but none was a real wow—that goes for the tiramisu-like cappuccino torte, the chocolate mousse napoleon (more like chocolate pudding) and the champagne sorbet (refreshing, if nothing else). However, the kitchen later added homemade ice cream, and the chocolate—intense and creamy—definitely qualifies for a superlative.

Wildwood strives to keep things personable, so there are no television screens at the bar, and no online reservations. Diners making reservations have to speak to an actual human being.

While Wiedmaier’s latest project may not be a strict interpretation of his original plans, that’s fine by me. The food is sort of Mediterranean, sometimes healthy and often very good. And the setting manages to be comfortable, elegant and neighborly all at the same time.

Wildwood Kitchen

10223 Old Georgetown Road (Wildwood Shopping Center) Bethesda, 301-571-1700

Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday

Lunch salads, sandwiches and entrées from $15 to $24; dinner entrées, $21 to $30

Not taken for lunch; highly recommended for dinner (no online reservations)

Favorite Dishes
Grilled octopus, littleneck clams, beet salad, pan-seared sea bream, short ribs, duck confit (special)

Good Place to Go For
A neighborhood meal with downtown sensibilities

Shopping center parking lot

The Wine List

  • A small, esoteric list aimed at the savvy wine drinker
  • 16 wines by the glass, 47 wines by the bottle
  • Heavy on French and Spanish offerings
  • Bottles priced $60 and under, but some markups seem excessive. The Stephen Vincent Pinot Noir at $60, for example, should be more like $45.

Recommendations by the glass: Verdejo-Viura, Fuente Milano (white, $11); Tempranillo, Finca La Mata (red, $10)

Top bottle picks: Pazo de Monterrey Godello (white, $45); Costieres de Nimes, Mas Carlot Les Enfant Terribles (red, $45)

Overall grade: B-

The list has some interesting food-friendly wines, but could be more balanced in terms of selection and price.

An Advanced Sommelier and a Master of Wine, Jay Youmans owns the Capital Wine School in Washington, D.C.

Carole Sugarman is the magazine's food editor.