At the Chesapeake Room, the latest restaurant on Capitol Hill’s thriving Barracks Row, paintings of Chincoteague fishermen and Virginia equestrians share space with old photos taken by a Baltimore Sun photographer. Behind the bar is a 350-gallon fish tank, and the walls are painted a deep marine blue. The tiny space has a leathery charm that makes you want to sink into a banquette and stay for hours.
The decor projects what the restaurant’s name evokes. The menu is a different story. The kitchen uses plenty of local ingredients—beef from Maryland farms, vegetables from Tuscarora Organics—but not much that comes out of it suggests crabbing country.
The only sign of the bay’s star ingredient is in an appetizer of fried green tomatoes that sandwich a layer of lump crab mixed with basil aïoli. That and a bowl of traditional Senate bean soup are the best starters. Of the remaining few appetizers, two involve oysters. But the horseradish-crusted, deep-fried bivalves in one are overwhelmed by their breading. And a dish of smoked oysters—cold, gray, and swimming in olive oil—tastes like a culinary-school experiment gone wrong.
Much of the menu—even on warm nights—recalls fireplace season: a New York strip with very good but very rich mushroom bread pudding, a bison burger topped with Cabernet-soaked onions, and slightly dry roast chicken with a port-cherry reduction. The best entrée is a double-cut Berkshire pork chop brined in cider vinegar and spices, then smoked for an hour and a half. The meat is tender and flavorful, and the gingery mashed sweet potatoes on the plate are hard to stop eating. Still, we’d rather have the simple cheeseburger at the nearby bar Lola’s—owned by Chesapeake Room proprietor Xavier Cervera—than the more creative mushroom burger served here at lunch. It might be more innovative, but it’s a muddled mess.
That’s part of the problem—the place has the lived-in appeal of a neighborhood hangout, but it’s at odds with the unfocused ambition of the kitchen. Cervera has the look down, but the food needs simplifying.