May-June 2011

The New Restaurants

More than two dozen new restaurants have opened in the area in the past year, several of them by big-name chefs. We tell you which to visit-and which to pass by. Plus, a look at the new restaurants still to come.

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Pan-roasted halibut with purple potato purée at 8407 Kitchen Bar. Photo credit: Stacy Zarin-GoldbergGo: 8407 Kitchen Bar

The people: Executive Chef Pedro Matamoros won acclaim while cooking at downtown’s Tabard Inn, and then at Nicaro, his own restaurant in Silver Spring. Now he has opened a contemporary American eatery in Silver Spring with partner and General Manager Nancy Hart.

The place: Urbane but warm; love the Granny Smith apple-colored walls. There’s a downstairs bar and lounge, and an upstairs dining room where picture windows overlook a humongous construction site. Service here is as smooth as its homemade vanilla ice cream.

The food: Our waiter wanted to know which house-made charcuterie item we preferred of the two we ordered, adding that the chef likes feedback. Nice gesture, tough question. My husband liked the chef’s terrine; I went with the duck prosciutto. I also preferred the duck confit spring rolls over the artichoke fritters. And among the entrées, it was a good thing I had already tried Matamoros’ renowned lamb Bolognese, with its soft egg noodles in rich lamb sauce—my husband hogged it on this visit. But my special of crispy-skinned halibut was also a winner. Set atop a purple potato purée, it was surrounded with bits of house-made chorizo and sun-dried tomatoes whose fullness and intensity were cut with lemon vinaigrette. For dessert, pastry chef Rita Garruba’s orange-almond tarte with homemade marmalade tasted as good as it looked.

The bottom line: One of the most creative bets in Silver Spring.

8407 Ramsey Ave., Silver Spring, 301-587-8407, www.8407kb.com. $$$

Go: Againn Tavern

The people: Againn Tavern is the sister restaurant of downtown’s Againn. Both are owned by the Bethesda-based Whisk Group, a boutique restaurant management company. Executive Chef Chris Lewis’ résumé includes sous-chef at downtown’s 701 and executive chef at Baltimore’s Brass Elephant.

The place: The former Houston’s space underwent a $1.9-million redo, but it’s hard to know where the money was spent. The space is smart and comfortable, but bland. Why can’t a British gastropub look at least a bit like England, even in a Rockville shopping strip?

The food: Between appeasing the homesick Houston’s crowd and downtown Anglophiles, the Whisk Group has struggled to be all things to all eaters. That’s why ribs and steak keep company with bangers and mash, and why you can get a full English breakfast or a burger at Sunday brunch. There is good food and OK food representing both sides of the pond. On the American side, go for a Caesar salad, crispy Brussels sprouts, a hamburger or ribs. On the British side, try those bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie or fish and chips. And save room for sticky toffee pudding and banoffee pie (a layered concoction of bananas, caramelized milk, graham crackers, cream and ganache, cleverly served in a mason jar).

The bottom line: Identity crisis aside, this British-American hybrid really does have something for everyone.

12256 Rockville Pike (Towne Plaza), Rockville, 301-230-9260, www.againntavern.com.  $$

Don’t bother: American Tap Room

The people: Like its Austin Grill predecessor, American Tap Room is one of the dining concepts from Thompson Hospitality, the Herndon, Va.-based company that also owns Marvelous Market.  

The place: It’s flashy—backlit menus, cool, double-decker iced tea decanters, a neon American flag on the side of the building, gas-fired urns on the roof, and overly eager servers who want to be your new BFF.

The food: Designated a “signature” item, the Tap Room Steak Salad should be a star. Yet its sliced beef was flabby and flavor-zapped, particularly surprising for meat described as marinated and grilled. The blackened fish sandwich with Cajun seasoning was similarly short on pizzazz. The fried zucchini appetizer showed glimmers of culinary hope, but its Greek yogurt and dill sauce was blah. Ditto for the salad dressing and the rémoulade sauce for the sandwich. For dessert, the banana bread pudding was a Gerber-like mush that my 2-year-old niece would have loved.

The bottom line: Bland chain food served in a glitzy setting.

7278 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-656-1366, www.americantaproom.com. $$

Maybe: Annie’s Bistro Français

The people: Chef Carole Robert, born and raised in Paris, and her American husband, Mark Manly, opened this eatery in the space formerly occupied by Café Gelato after the roof of their Middleburg, Va., restaurant collapsed during the 2009 Snowmageddon. The couple, who separately and jointly owned businesses in Bethesda at one time, are warm and welcoming.

The place: Two levels of café seating and pictures of Paris on the apricot walls lend charm, but the high ceiling gives it a somewhat cavernous feel. 

The food: It’s hard to judge Robert’s cooking since the restaurant wasn’t serving dinner at press time (pending approval of its wine and beer license). The lunch menu consists of simple soups, salads and sandwiches, and they were all homey renditions. I’d go back in a minute for the white bean soup, with its balance of ham and herbs, but

I’m not sure I’d make a repeat visit for the mayo-heavy egg and chicken salads, or the green salads, which tasted like something I could easily assemble at home. Cassoulet and rabbit stew—both destined for the dinner menu—are another matter, however; I look forward to trying them.

The bottom line: Home-style cooking in a personable environment.

4823 St. Elmo Ave., Bethesda, 301-657-0080. $ (lunch)

Go: Bistro LaZeez

The people: Reda Asaad, a local Arabic language tutor who wowed students with his end-of-the-year grilled chicken parties, has turned the oft-said “you should open a restaurant” into a successful reality. He and his wife, Nadia Abourizk-Asaad, executive director of the Rene Moawad Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes human development in Lebanon, live in Chevy Chase.

The place: Decorated with the help of Nadia Abourizk-Asaad, the former Posh Pooch dog boutique has been transformed with taupe walls and white banquettes.

The food: This little charmer of a Mediterranean restaurant is an unbelievable bargain, whether you order Asaad’s chicken, beef, lamb or kafta (I can vouch for them all). Entrées come with rice or potatoes, grilled vegetables, a side salad and revelatory grilled pita bread, ranging from $9.99 (with three pieces of chicken) to $15.99 (beef kafta, lamb and chicken kebab). The signature chicken had an outdoor-grill flavor and was major-league moist when I first sampled it, though it has been on the dry side on subsequent visits. Also check out the cilantro-and-garlic-dressed fava bean sauté appetizer.

The bottom line: A restaurant true to its namesake: “Lazeez” means delicious in Arabic.

8009 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda, 301-652-8222, www.bistrolazeez.com. $

Go: Bistro Provence

The people: Executive chef-owner Yannick Cam earned renown in the Washington area with Le Pavillon during the late 1970s, followed by a number of talked-about restaurants, including Yannick’s, Coco Loco, Le Relais, Provence and Le Paradou. Service problems plagued this new place when it first opened, but if a recent lunch is any indication, things have improved.

The place: Cozy and pretty, with gold walls, brass chandeliers and a charming patio, it’s very much the French bistro.

The food: I’m still thinking about some of the dishes I’ve had here: the veal chop special with Parmesan-crusted polenta and woodsy artichoke hearts; the flavor-packed hanger steak; the bouillabaisse, with its haunting seafood broth; the silky marinated roasted peppers with tangy goat cheese; the velvety soft omelet topped with a tangle of arugula, tomatoes, Parmesan and olives; the no-miss desserts. Not everything is perfect (grilled swordfish was on the dry side; roast chicken tasted ordinary), but for special nights out, this should be at the top of anyone’s list.   

The bottom line: French bistro food that raises the bar in Bethesda.

4933 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-656-7373, www.bistroprovence.org. $$$