July-August 2013 | Food & Drink

Hit and Miss

Bethesda's Brickside chalks up a win as a sports bar; as a restaurant, it still needs practice

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Which NFL player scored the most touchdowns in his career?

That would be Jerry Rice, with 208.

I learned that during a recent Trivia Night at Brickside Food & Drink even though I wasn’t playing along. (I know as much about football as RGIII knows about making soufflé.) Still, the booming DJ’s voice was hard to ignore as I finished my Scottish organic salmon with sundried tomato and black olive mousse.

The juxtaposition of upscale fish dishes with trivia nights, a 37-foot bar, four 50-inch plasma TVs and a high-definition, 160-inch projection screen may sound incongruous. But Brickside’s “goal is to be both—a bar and a restaurant,” co-owner Brian Vasile says.

To accomplish that, Vasile and partner Andy Seligman, who also own Grand Central, a bar in Adams Morgan, joined forces with Andrea Pace, chef-owner of Villa Mozart restaurant in Fairfax, and his manager, Reem Arbid. Drawing on their bar and restaurant experience, the men aimed to offer the “best of both worlds” at Bethesda’s Brickside, Vasile says.

So did they pull it off?

After four visits (two for happy hour, two for dinner), I’d say the bar scene is a lot more solid than the dining.

Both the drinking and eating spaces, however, are equally appealing. The building—which always had a dark, unwelcoming facade—previously housed a run of unsuccessful bars and eateries with chintzy décor. Renovations have transformed the interior and exterior, leaving the place looking fabulous.

Garage-style windows lend a more welcoming approach, and they can be raised to provide an airy lookout for happy hour drinkers. The handsome, rustic interior is divided between the bar on the left, the projection screen on the back wall, and a dining section on the right with light-wood tables and black upholstered chairs and booths.

A mural on a brick wall next to the seating area reads: “Vote Against Prohibition,” a nod to the gentle theme carried out with old-time martinis and alcoholic punches sporting names like Brickside Moonshine and Pink Murder.

As a bar or gathering place for all ages, Brickside has a fun vibe; and as a spot to watch sports, the TVs and mammoth projection screen can’t be beat.

When it comes to the bar specialties, those punches look cute in their mason jars, but the three I tried tasted like watered-down fruit drinks at a school fair, making me wonder if the bartender had taken the Prohibition theme a little too literally. I’d order a beer instead.

As for the food, the menu is heavy on bar bites, with a couple of standouts among the mostly standard nibbles. The best include the big fried shrimp crusted with kataifi (the wiry phyllo dough that looks like shredded wheat) and the polenta fries. Cooked and cooled polenta is cut into rectangles, then coated with flour and fried until crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle; a dive in the blue cheese dip adds some oomph, making the snack far more interesting than traditional fries and ketchup.

Among the worst bites are the skewered chicken fingers, Lincoln Log-shaped batons cooked to a dried-out stage that even the salsa rosa couldn’t rescue. The farmer’s toast sounded interesting, but the bread was swiped with an overpowering horseradish spread and served sandwich style, enclosing slices of lukewarm salami and fontina, which had turned sweaty from the hot toast.

A better option with a beer is one of the white pizzas—either the Brickside, topped with Armenian cheese and za’atar, the Middle Eastern spice; or the Piedina, covered with papery slices of potato, fontina, mozzarella and rosemary. The crusts are thin and crackly and they go down easily. Plus, I like the out-of-the-ordinary toppings.

For a main course, stick with a burger like the Big Max. Made with 8 ounces of loosely packed ground Black Angus beef, it was cooked precisely as ordered and topped with lots of goodies—Boursin, sautéed onions, mushrooms and melted brie—to keep it juicy and moist.

And that Scottish organic salmon? It was a nice piece of fresh fish, cooked until the interior was silken, and served with a piquant sundried tomato and black olive mousse that was more like a tapenade.

Maybe my expectations were too high for the pasta dishes, which have been touted among co-owner Pace’s specialties at his Villa Mozart Italian restaurant. After trying three of the four choices, I would only return for the linguine with shrimp, which was pleasant and pretty with its firm seafood and delicate brandy sauce.

I definitely wouldn’t come back for the baby back ribs, a run-of-the-mill rack coated with gluey barbecue sauce and accompanied by the world’s oddest coleslaw. Was it a fluke that the kitchen seemed to have forgotten the cabbage? The side dish was mostly mayonnaise.

Could the problems with the cooking be attributed to Chef Pace’s schedule? He’s only at Brickside three nights a week, and those would not be the busy Fridays and Saturdays, when he’s attending to diners at his own place. His absence might explain my mediocre Saturday night dinner, which included two of the disappointing pasta dishes, the crazy “coleslaw” and that flabby farmer’s toast.

Apart from the food, the loud music and multiple TVs that help create a lively bar scene also produce a deafening background for a leisurely meal. After leaving that Saturday evening, a friend admitted she hadn’t heard half of what I had said, despite her polite nods. Another in our party actually stepped outside shortly before the bill was paid, miserable from the cacophony.

Brickside may aspire to be both a bar and a restaurant, but the food preparation needs more practice before I’d call it a winning combination.

Brickside Food & Drink

4866 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, 301-312-6160, bricksidebethesda.com

HOURS
Open 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. At press time, plans were in the works for a Saturday and Sunday brunch.

BEER, WINE & COCKTAILS
The beer list includes familiar offerings and craft options in cans, bottles and on draft, making for a good but not great selection. Seven white and eight red wines are available by the glass or bottle, plus Prohibition-era punches and martinis  

RESERVATIONS
Available on Open Table, recommended on weekends

PRICES
Bar bites range from $3.95 to $14.95; burgers and sandwiches, $10.95 to $14.95; pasta, $11.95 to $12.95; entrées, $16.95 to $20.95.

FAVORITE DISHES
Shrimp in phyllo dough, polenta fries with blue cheese dip, Big Max burger, Scottish organic salmon, linguine with shrimp in a light brandy sauce, Piedina pizza, Brickside pizza

GOOD PLACE TO GO FOR
A beer and a burger

PARKING
Street parking and public lots

Carole Sugarman is the magazine’s food editor.