Liberty Tree (Full Review)

A New England bistro comes to DC’s “Wild West”

For the last couple of years, an eclectic bunch of restaurateurs has flocked to H Street, Northeast, like Gold Rushers, snatching up empty storefronts to try out their quirkiest concepts—think Mexican food with a mini-golf course. One of the newer ventures is Liberty Tree, which aims to evoke New England. The owners, Massachusetts-bred Scott Hamilton and Rhode Island–schooled Graig Glufling, have put together a convincing replica of an Atlantic-coast seaside bistro.

Cosmetic reminders of the region are sailing maps of the 13 Colonies, framed pictures of patriot soldiers, and puritanically uncomfortable booths. On the tables are white cloths and butcher paper, too—a mix of New England’s two personalities: salt-of-the-earth fisherman and moneyed, Madras-wearing prep-schoolers.

Glufling, who was the opening chef at Matchbox in DC’s Penn Quarter, tries to fuse both sensibilities on his menu, and he succeeds most often with dishes that appeal to fishing-town families. His creamy clam chowder was full of smoky bacon, as was a simple but excellent scoop of smoked-whitefish spread. A meatball grinder was spicy and properly drippy with melted cheese. Rhode Island–style fried calamari, typically tossed with banana peppers, get a twist—spicy cherry peppers are blended into a buttery dip reminiscent of Buffalo sauce—but retains the bar-snack roots of the dish.

It’s the upscale fare that often misses the mark. A lobster pot pie was really a boat of cream with skimpy nubs of claw meat. Lobster meat served in a top-split hot-dog bun has a better pedigree but was overwhelmed by garlicky butter. Citrus-cured salmon, cut too thick, tasted past its prime.

Glufling brought over his Matchbox recipe for dainty fried onion straws and fortunately hasn’t changed a thing. Surprisingly, his cracker-thin pizzas don’t live up to the ones he made there. The New Haven–inspired version, white with clams, can be heavy on garlic, but a sweet-sauced pie with pepperoni showed Glufling’s strength: straightforward food done well.

For now, Liberty Tree is a good place to satisfy a hankering for a cold beer and fried bar snacks. And for New Englanders, it’s a great bit of nostalgia.

-August 2010