Fried and True: Food Wine & Co.

Upscale fried fare in Bethesda.

Hushpuppies slathered with honey butter keep us going back to Food Wine & Co. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Hushpuppies slathered with honey butter keep us going back to Food Wine & Co. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Over the years, servers often have regarded my restaurant orders as over the top, at times insanely gluttonous. My waiter at Food Wine & Co. one recent evening looked like he leaned toward a verdict of insanity. “I’ll have the fried calamari, the fried artichokes, an order of fries, the tater tots, and the hushpuppies,” I said. By my last visit to the Bethesda bistro, I’d learned one thing: Focus on the fryer. Despite its pale celadon booths and glossy-rustic setting, this is not a place to eat delicately. This is a place to eat like Paula Deen.

The restaurant has had a bumpy ride since it opened more than a year ago. The first chef left after four months. Then it was announced that Carole Greenwood, who had bolted from Buck’s Fishing & Camping and Comet Ping Pong, would take over. She lasted one night. Owner Francis Namin finally brought on Michael Harr, the talented chef who won acclaim at the now-closed Butterfield 9.

Harr might not be turning out the elaborate creations–a four-part “study” of goat; foie gras with French toast and candied blueberries–that made his reputation at Butterfield 9, but he’s smart to keep things approachable here. The fried stuff, especially that calamari, strewn with chili-lime emulsion and brightened with pickled peppers, is a draw, but it isn’t the only reason to make a reservation (most nights, you’ll need one). A terrific lamb burger is perfectly seasoned and topped with harissa-tomato confit and a rich roasted-garlic/aleppo-pepper mayo. The hickory burger is piled with bacon, laden with cheddar, and sized for a linebacker. It’s a glorious mess. Mustardy deviled eggs and mac and cheese gooey with Gruyère round out a calorie bender. Other dishes, such as a coconut-and-lime-sauced ceviche of yellowtail tuna and a big skillet of mussels with surprisingly kicky curry, are good too, but more respectful of the arteries.

Unexpectedly, Harr stumbles on the more ambitious dishes. A thin, plate-size pork blade steak smothered in too-sweet sauce arrived just past rare and, after I sent it back, returned closer to well done. Despite a four-hour cure in kosher salt, the roasted beets with goat-cheese espuma was one of the duller versions of the salad I’ve tasted. Flimsy-crusted, floury pizzas are skippable, as are the achingly sweet desserts.

Which means one thing: another round of hushpuppies.

This article appears in the February 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.