Food

The Tavern at River Falls: Reeling Them In

The seafood-focused restaurant shows promise in Potomac.
The Cadillac crabcakes at Potomac’s Tavern at River Falls are some of the area’s best. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
The Cadillac crabcakes at Potomac’s Tavern at River Falls are some of the area’s best. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Slideshow: Inside Tavern at River Falls

Oh, Potomac. It has megamansions, manicured horse farms, even
Wonder Woman (or at least Lynda Carter). But for all its wealth, it has
never had much of a restaurant scene. For a long time, the dining room at
Congressional Country Club was your best bet. Then came Bezu, the eclectic
but expensive and erratic fusion dining room. Or you could stop by River
Falls Seafood Company, Jeff Grolig’s excellent fish market in the high-end
strip mall Potomac Village, and pick up some beautiful Cadillac
crabcakes.

Now Grolig—once a seafood buyer at now-closed Sutton Place
Gourmet—has opened the Tavern at River Falls, which has become instantly
popular. Each time I visited, even on a weekday, the place was slammed
with an overwhelming number of guys in Nantucket Reds and loads of tanned,
well-preserved sixtysomethings. One night I took my parents for dinner.
“Wow,” my dad said to my mother as he scanned the room. “You might be the
only gray-haired woman in Potomac.”

The dining room, with its bland straw-and-leaf-green color
scheme and stone wall panels, feels a bit like a chain restaurant. “The
Suburbs” by Arcade Fire rolled out from the speakers, but you could barely
hear it over the din, as loud as a Georgetown happy hour.

Fortunately, chef Brian Nussear makes it mostly easy to stay
focused on what’s on the table, though unlike many cooks, he does entrées
better than appetizers. One of the best ways to start is with an order of
meaty, whole-belly Ipswich clams soaked in buttermilk, dredged in
smoked-paprika-seasoned flour, and beautifully fried—they make a nice
share for two or three. She-crab soup verged on overly rich but boasted
wonderful sherry-stoked flavor. But beyond that, onion soup—an oddity in
summer—was strangely bitter and devoid of depth. Caesar salad was
listless, and sodden pork dumplings in white-miso sauce were downright
boring.

But things quickly looked up. Pay attention to specials, which
might include Chesapeake rockfish caught that morning or Copper River
salmon. From the regular menu, an oblong plate spread with
green-onion-and-mustard spaetzle was topped with New Jersey sea scallops
as sweet as their prized cousins from Nantucket’s Taylor Bay. Shrimp and
grits was perfect, with big, beautifully seared Gulf shrimp over thick
chipotle-Gouda grits. A rack of Berkshire pork, brined in honey, soy
sauce, and herbs, was juicy and tender but not overbrined, as many are.
And then there are those oversize Cadillac crabcakes—jumbo-lump meat bound
the old-fashioned way, with eggs, mayo, Old Bay, and dry mustard. They
rank in the area’s top tier.

It’s best to stop there—a meal’s landing is even wobblier than
its takeoff. There are hardly any bright spots when it comes to sweets,
which range from store-bought chocolate cake to boozy but soggy house-made
bread pudding.

If Grolig and his team can remedy those deficits, they could
have a real hit—and not the kind that stays packed only because there
isn’t much else in the neighborhood.

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

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