Few areas in DC are as primed for a good neighborhood restaurant as Woodley Park. Sure, it's got the often-terrific New Heights, but that's on the expensive side for a casual dinner, and Open City is fine for a breakfast sandwich. But beyond that? Aside from the forgettable Italian spots and omelet joints kept in business by the convention crowds at the nearby hotels, there's always Chipotle.
So when restaurateurs Jawad Saadaoui and Drew Trautmann--the team behind Mendocino Grille & Wine Bar in Georgetown and Sonoma on Capitol Hill--said they were taking over a nearly century-old building near Woodley Park's main crossroads of Connecticut Avenue and Calvert Street, residents of the ornate apartment buildings nearby grew excited.
The place, which opened in January, at first seems assembled from a build-a-barnyard-chic-restaurant kit. Red-striped dishtowels take the place of napkins, a vintage enamel stove serves as the host stand, and light bulbs in Mason jars hang over the drafty dining room. The menu has the requisite $12 organic-egg appetizer (but it's local!) along with a mix of rib-sticking comfort plates and Eisenhower-era throwbacks (when did you last see chicken à la king?). There's even a "jerky of the day," which on each of my visits was made from slightly gingery, salty skirt steak.
The best ways to start dinner are with two spreads--one a nicely spiced whip of deviled country ham, the other a satiny chicken-liver mousse (a reliable fixture at Trautmann and Saadaoui's other restaurants). They had all the flavor that a crock of airy house-made ricotta lacked. If only those winners came with something besides dry triangles of toasted white bread. Celery-root soup, so thick it belonged in a shot glass instead of a cereal bowl, suffered a similar pairing: a hard, puck-like baguette sprinkled with sparse shreds of cheddar.
A menu laden with dumplings and kraut and twice-baked potatoes doesn't make you think eating lightly is the way to go, but flavors are bolder and brighter in the few fish dishes. A tender, meaty cut of halibut showed off a wonderfully tangy sun-dried-tomato sauce, while seared scallops were perked up with aromatic grapefruit beurre blanc. An appetizer of lightly pickled trout made a perfect match with darkly fried latkes and swabs of crème fraîche. Salads are hard to make memorable, but watercress and arugula leaves tossed with blue cheese and black walnuts was a study in well-balanced simplicity.
The kitchen falters with more robust plates. The chicken à la king was a shredded mess that would have been passable at a hurried family dinner table but wasn't as a $21 dish. A riff on a French-dip sandwich involved hefty bread slathered with white-bean spread and stuffed with bland mushrooms--the mushroom "jus" had little more flavor than hot water. A bowl of fusilli came with an intriguing-sounding lamb chili, but it too was shy on flavor. One exception: the excellent long-cooked pork shank with a sweet-sour cider glaze, its stiffened dumplings aside.
Some of the cooking will leave you feeling pretty satisfied, but when it comes to other dishes, you might wish you'd stuck with a carnitas burrito down the block.
This article appears in the April 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.