News & Politics

March 2004: Zest

Not that Zest is a place for children. Its sleek decor--schoolroom tables and abstract art--and sophisticated New American fare would make this shopping-plaza storefront a standout anywhere.

Even if you're not a kid anymore, Zest will make you feel like one. How else to describe a restaurant that has "Cup of Dirt" on its tykes' menu? Not that Zest is a place for children. Its sleek decor–schoolroom tables and abstract art–and sophisticated New American fare would make this shopping-plaza storefront a standout anywhere.

Chef/owner David Jones was a chef at Vidalia and Bistro Bis before landing in Monrovia, Md. His partner, Keith Sleppy, worked stints at Addie's in Rockville and Black's Bar and Kitchen in Bethesda, two of Maryland's better dining rooms. Besides kitchen pyrotechnics, they've brought fun to eating out.

Here's a menu with personality and daring. Liver and onions? Pan-seared morsels nudged with bacon and caramelized onions are probably one of the more elegant renditions on this comfort plate. It's just a tasting, though–enough to enjoy and leave you wanting more. Steak tartare? Deftly seasoned and delicious. A nifty little grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich and a scatter of crunchy house-made potato chips take this wintry standby to new realms. Savory sweetbread sausage is presented on a sweet-potato blini with maple butter. Another classic gone luxe: macaroni and cheese made with fontina, studded with lobster, and heavy on the cream.

At lunch there's a fabulous oyster po' boy with country ham and ancho mayo. And Prince Edward Island mussels steamed in beer are so memorable we wonder why they don't reappear in the evening.

Main courses include beautifully seared halibut in a bowl of Chesapeake oyster stew with bacon, leeks, and red bliss potatoes; crispy fried perch, camp-style, countered by sweet apple chutney and greens; and grilled salmon over country-ham hash topped with a poached quail egg. The grilled rib eye is about as flavorful as a steak can get–mated with roasted-garlic potato gratin, it is a classic turned modern. Local ingredients, like the rib eye from nearby Mount Airy, are prized in this dining room.

There are a few misfires. A deconstructed cassoulet of shrimp, sausage, and white beans makes you realize some things just shouldn't be tinkered with. Pork loin steeped in bourbon-cider sauce suffers from the blahs. And occasionally the kitchen gets sloppy. The lushest of vegetable flans and that UK pub staple known as a Scottish egg, here made with quail eggs, arrived barely warm one night. Amends were graciously made by the staff. Still, one hopes it was a fluke.

The wine and beer rosters are cleverly conceived–many exotic yet reasonably priced bottles are on show in the two-sided wine wall dividing the main dining room. There's also a clever selection of digestifs–the grappas are just the thing with the dried-apricot-almond tart. Desserts change often, and there's no guarantee that the house-made roasted-pineapple ice cream will be around when you visit. But the Cup of Dirt is a mainstay: crushed cookie crumbs and white or dark chocolate mousse, depending on the night, plus the crowning glory–green gummy worms. Every kid at the table–whether age four or 44–will be waving a spoon.

ATMOSPHERE: Modern yet warm with nifty abstract art, including an amazing five-paneled painting.

FOOD: Modern American with a sense of humor and a bent toward updated comfort food like lobster mac-and-cheese.

SERVICE: Friendly and usually competent with the occasional fumble.

PRICE: Entrées $15 to $25. Dinner for two, around $100.

VALUE: Very good.

WINE LIST: Excellent, eclectic, and quite reasonable. There are some interesting beers as well.

BOTTOM LINE: Where locals who care about food and wine hang out. A worthwhile stop for anyone in the area and maybe even a destination on a lovely spring or summer day.