Silver Spring's Hot Restaurant Scene

A handful of newcomers has Silver Spring's dining scene buzzing.

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With a boom in residential options and the long-awaited opening of its transit center, downtown Silver Spring has become a lively hub—and that includes for places to eat. While it has its share of the fast-casual eateries and chains cropping up elsewhere, the diverse enclave has snagged a growing number of distinctive, independently owned restaurants in the last year or so. Fabulous food isn’t guaranteed, but most serve up a hip urban vibe.

Even for those who don’t live in the neighborhood, gathering spots such as Denizens Brewing Co. and The Urban Winery, with their locally made libations, deserve a visit. Ditto for Kaldi’s Coffee Bar—a soothing spot with bombshell baked goods—and Bump ‘n Grind, a combination coffee shop, vinyl record store and live music and event venue. Urban Butcher, the edgy protein palace with its own butcher shop and meat cellar that opened in December 2013, remains a destination.


Pizza, paninis and calzones are the stars of Italian Kitchen’s menu. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.

Among the newest batch of eateries, Italian Kitchen is an unassuming gem, delivering on its name to serve up homey Italian dishes. From the owners of Italian Kitchen on U in Washington, D.C., the informal pizzeria sports unusual steel and multi-wood paneling and a small bar made of the same materials. Sliced two-inch-high rounds of tree trunks serve as trays for the pizza, with its pillowy but crisp-bottomed crusts and tasteful toppings (loved the Roma Prosciutto, topped with prosciutto, Roma tomatoes, greens, fresh mozzarella and olive oil).

Italian Kitchen turns out far more than pizza, with a long list of pastas, paninis, wraps, calzones and salads also on the menu. The Chicken Paradiso panini, made on oval-shaped focaccia, was layered with grilled chicken breast, pesto, red onions, greens, fontina cheese and balsamic aioli—a surprisingly compatible combination. And a Prima calzone, stuffed with spinach, artichoke hearts, Roma tomatoes, caramelized onions, tomato sauce, and ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, was a big and beautiful crescent that oozed with fresh-tasting filling.   


A.G. Kitchen’s pretty pastels. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.

Speaking of good looks, one of the most attractive newcomers is A.G. Kitchen, the area’s first full-service outpost from The Restaurant Group, a Manhattan-based company where Cuban-born chef Alex Garcia (A.G.) serves as a partner. At one time or another, Garcia has been an author, Food Network celebrity chef, consultant, do-gooder, caterer and seller of spices and cookware. The former Macaroni Grill is now awash in pretty pastels, with wall paint and colored-glass accents in shades of apricot, lime, turquoise, pink and yellow. A fun and inventive collection of Latin-inspired dishes comprises the menu.

All of this sets up jazzy expectations, but most of the food I tried was inexplicably dull. Among the gaffes: rubbery taco shells, vapid guacamole, fried calamari with an overly sweet glaze and a tuna burger’s topping of “spicy” mayo with little discernible heat.

Another restaurant with stunning décor, All Set Restaurant & Bar is more sophisticated. Located in the space that housed the age-old Golden Flame, All Set is a modern seafood eatery, with cobalt blue banquettes, and white rope incorporated into chandeliers, panels and dividers. As restaurant partner and Silver Spring resident Jennifer Meltzer puts it, “I wanted it to be nautical but not with kitschy buoys, anchors and mermaid tails.”


Left: Crispy-skinned salmon at Mix Bar and Grille. Right: Chef Edward Reavis at All Set Restaurant & Bar. Photos by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.

I was hoping to be hooked by the food, too, but after having lunch and dinner there, I can’t tell a fish story. From tough, dense Sriracha cheddar biscuits to watery clam chowder, tired-tasting fish dip, sticky fettucine with clams, and nothing-special salmon and lentils, the dishes were underwhelming. Strangely enough, the best of the bunch wasn’t seafood but moist brick chicken, served with Swiss chard and mashed potatoes.

The salmon at Mix Bar and Grille, served with cardamom rice, gingered bok choy and a sake yuzu glaze, turned out to be a better rendition, its silken flesh a striking foil to the crispy skin. Mix on Georgia Avenue is the second location of a restaurant with the same name in Potomac. Pedro Matamoros, the former chef at Silver Spring’s 8407 Kitchen Bar and the shuttered Nicaro, oversees the cooking at both places.

With a large bar and 10 television screens, the newer restaurant seems more a late-night drinking destination than its older sister. But as in Potomac, the food is a mix of spot-on offerings (the salmon, plus warm and creamy crab dip, a grilled oyster appetizer special and an A-plus apple pie) and so-so dishes (an overcooked, below-average burger; fettucine with shrimp that needed more zip).


House-made Limoncello and local hard cider are served at Sligo Cafe. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.

Another newcomer with ups and downs is Sligo Cafe, a comfortable neighborhood spot with an ambitious drink menu that includes house-made Limoncello and ginger beer, plus local hard ciders. Among the small plates I sampled from the summer menu, I quickly polished off the Gochu chicken wings; they had the perfect balance of sweet and spicy from their namesake Korean pepper, soy sauce and chives. And while Brussels sprouts are as ubiquitous as construction cones around town, Sligo Cafe’s lacy-crisp version, with bacon, sunflower kernels and lemon vinaigrette, proved to be a standout. On the downside: soggy homemade potato chips and smoked lamb ribs with an off-putting flavor. But don’t skip dessert; the restaurant does an adult riff on s’mores, and it’s childhood and summer all over again.

Italian Kitchen, 8201 Fenton St., 301-588-7800, www.italiankitchenmd.com. Pizzas, $7.99 to $19.99; calzone, pasta and paninis, $7.99 to $11.99.      

A.G. Kitchen, 931 Ellsworth Drive,301-588-9400, www.agkitchen.com . Appetizers, $9 to $17; burgers $12 to $19; entrées $16 to $29.

All Set Restaurant & Bar, 8630 Fenton St., 301-495-8800, www.allsetrestaurant.com. Appetizers, $8 to $16; salads and sandwiches,$14 to $23; entrées , $17 to $34.

Mix Bar and Grille, 8241 Georgia Ave., #200, 301-326-1333, www.mixbarandgrillesilverspring.com. Appetizers, $7 to $16; entrées, $11 to $27.

Sligo Cafe, 923 Sligo Ave., 301-565-2233, sligocafe.com. Small plates, $5 to $12; entrées, $15 to $22.   

 

Carole Sugarman is the magazine’s food editor. To comment on this review, email comments@bethesdamagazine.com.

 

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