Gluten-free restaurant The Little Beet Table in Chevy Chase banks on the wellness trend
“Is this your first visit to The Little Beet Table?” an affable server asks. Although the answer is yes, it feels like it’s no as I look around at the 5,000-square-foot space with its reclaimed wood floors, floor-to-ceiling windows, gray brick walls and hanging plants. The menu promises “honest, delicious and nourishing food” that will “make you feel energized and joyful.” Five offerings on a cocktail list each have something in them I don’t want. This is the restaurant critic’s version of the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, in which I return over and over to a farmhouse chic restaurant that is devoted to my wellness and puts dill in martinis, fennel in margaritas and beet juice in gin and tonics.
Like Bethesda’s True Food Kitchen and Terrain Café, The Little Beet Table, which opened in November in the Collection at Chevy Chase, is part of a chain capitalizing on the wellness craze, especially in affluent areas. The Little Beet Table markets itself as 100% gluten-free. Its flagship location opened in New York City in 2014. Now there are locations in Chicago and Greenwich, Connecticut. The parent company, Aurify Brands, also has 12 outposts of The Little Beet, a fast-casual version of full-service The Little Beet Table, including one in Rosslyn and one in Pentagon City. (Aurify Brands also owns Five Guys.)
I don’t have a sensitivity to gluten, a group of proteins found in several grains, particularly wheat, so I can’t speak to the sense of relief diners who do must feel in a restaurant where they have abundant choice and no risk of gluten exposure. (According to Dr. Alessio Fasano, who directs the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, gluten sensitivity affects 6 to 7% of the U.S. population.)
There are things to like at The Little Beet Table, which seats 100 inside and 50 outside, but the food and decor feel generic. If there’s artwork on the walls, I don’t notice it. There is nothing that connects the space to its community, no indication whether I’m in Chevy Chase or Greenwich or Chicago. Like at True Food Kitchen and Terrain Café, the menu’s dishes are the brainchild of a culinary director. In The Little Beet Table’s case, it’s Matt Aita in New York City. The chef in Chevy Chase, Zach Bondy, reproduces those dishes rather than expressing his own creative abilities.
That being said, several starters designed for sharing are quite tasty, among them a version of guacamole that has watercress in it and is topped with a sauce made with charred jalapenos and scallions, lime juice, parsley, coriander and Aleppo pepper. Dark blue corn tortilla chips stud the dip. Sunflower seed hummus is emboldened with garlic confit (the cloves cooked slowly in oil until soft) and za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice mix of fresh thyme, sumac, cumin and sesame seeds. Sheep’s milk ricotta cheese with dried figs, wine syrup and watercress leaves served with very good grilled country bread is an ode to simplicity, even if the bread and cheese could use a sprinkle of finishing salt on top.
A delicious rendition of salmon tartare is a visual stunner. A circle of coral-hued, hand-chopped raw salmon sits on a vibrant magenta aguachile (usually a citrus-based marinade for ceviche) of beet, lime and grapefruit juices, jalapeno, red onion and coconut water. Red radish slices, nasturtium leaves and dollops of avocado puree top the salmon.
My companions and I thoroughly enjoyed a crispy pan-fried brown rice cake with a fried egg and sauteed shiitake mushrooms and scallion slivers, a marked improvement over a drab, underdressed salad of greens and apple that’s topped with a desert-dry plank of overcooked grilled chicken.Entrees are a mixed bag. My favorite here is a tender New York strip steak perfectly grilled to medium rare and served with grilled radicchio, the vegetable’s bitterness balanced with a balsamic vinegar and beet vinaigrette studded with candied walnuts. For a dish featuring cavatelli in a hearty mushroom Bolognese sauce, The Little Beet Table has Everfresh Food Corp. in Chicago hand roll and ship the pasta to all their restaurants. The quality is so good, with just the right al dente bite, that I would never have guessed it was gluten-free. The dish would be enjoyable were it not topped with “mushroom bacon,” roasted and dehydrated maitake mushrooms transformed into burnt, rubbery and truly horrible slivers that in no way resemble bacon. Mushroom bacon also ruins what would have been a nice dish of tubular, pleasantly chewy Korean rice cakes in a sauce made with gochujang, a fermented red chili paste.
The skin is nicely rendered and crispy on a roasted chicken breast with butternut squash, but the underseasoned flesh has little flavor, and I detect no trace of spice in what’s billed as a Madras curry sauce. The nice thing I can say about the unpleasantly mushy mushroom and black bean burger is that its bun from the brand OMG…It’s Gluten-Free is top-notch.
An excellent choice for dessert is profiteroles filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with toasted hazelnuts and chocolate sauce. Cinnamon and cardamom imbue a dense chocolate cake served with candied clementine oranges, candied walnuts and whipped cream, a satisfying way to feed a chocolate urge. Warm chocolate chip cookies remind me of something found at 7-Eleven.
There are nice touches at The Little Beet Table, such as complimentary bottled still or sparkling Vero water. Service is consistently warm and efficient. If I were gluten-sensitive, maybe I would have felt energized and joyful after my visits there, as promised. Instead, I looked longingly at Sushiko next door.