Admit it: you always wanted a neighborhood bistro. A place where one could just stop by on the way from the office for a cocktail, or a glass of wine and perhaps a bite of something comfortably tasty to go with the drink. A place where the bartender knows you by name and remembers to mix your manhattan just so, a place small enough to feel cozy and intimate but spacious enough to allow your table some privacy.
Enter the Wildwood Kitchen, the latest member of Robert Wiedmaier’s growing empire.
It’s been billed as a south of France/Mediterranean-themed bistro with a healthy angle, it’s been described as a neighborhood casual eatery – and it is all those things, but with a twist. Or, rather, with many twists.
It is small, with seating for about 55 people (plus perhaps another 10 at the bar), and it’s been packed pretty much every night we ate there, be it Saturday night or Wednesday afternoon. It is elegant and cozy, with a distinct European/New York feel, one of the very few suburban restaurants to have worked out that magic of transferring you to another place the moment you walk in (Bezu in Potomac achieves a similar effect, but their food is rather average).
Its menu – probably – has Mediterranean motifs. Probably – because the Mediterranean influence is rather a concept, a hint here, a suggestion there, a technique or an ingredient pointing at sunnier climes.
It starts with an amuse of tuna ghanoush, nicely moist tuna mashed with garlic, olive oil, lemon and spices, and served with toasted chunks of hand-pulled baguette sprinkled with olive oil; even after eating it half a dozen times, I am still looking forward for more.
The dinner menu is rather short, with about seven or eight appetizers and a similar number of entrees, plus a small selection of cheeses and charcuterie and three desserts. Every now and then there are a couple of specials, and apparently the plan is to change the menu several times a year.
I hope that tuna ghanoush survives the menu changes. Fennel/endive salad with shrimp is delicious, the mixed green (“Little Gem lettuce”) salad is made interesting by the addition of pickled onions, and the roasted squash soup is served in a small individual saucepan and poured over a small disk of mirepoix at the table. The crisply grilled Portuguese sardines are one of the best in the area – in no small part due to an apparently rigorous quality control; last night they were not on the menu, the latest delivery having not met the kitchen’s standards. The lamb meatball, spiced with harissa, sits on top of a small mound of amazingly tasty mashed potatoes.
Some of the main courses may seem familiar – they’ve been transplanted from the menus of other Wiedmaier’s restaurants. On our first visit to the Wildwood Kitchen – actually, I believe, we were the first “public” customers of the restaurant – the waiter, himself a Marcel’s transplant, very strongly suggested the roasted chicken, adopted from that restaurant’s kitchen. The chicken was perfectly cooked – apparently the chef from Marcel’s stops by every now and then to keep an eye on it ;)
The chef running the kitchen day-to-day is another Marcel’s transplant, Antony Yannuzzi. During the initial months, though, there was enough culinary star power present to light up a much bigger place: Robert Wiedmaier himself was on hand almost nightly, and Brian McBride, of the Blue Duck Tavern fame, seems to be a more or less constant presence.
So it is not just about the chicken. The red snapper en papillote infuses the whole room with flavor once its paper envelope is cut, the hanger steak is accompanied by terrifically garlicky kale, scallops look great (one of the few dishes we haven’t tried yet). Filet mignon, one of the specials the other night, was cooked exactly to order, and its black pepper crust and cognac sauce played very well with the mashed potatoes.
As with everything in life, there is room for improvement here. The salmon my wife ordered during one of our earlier visits was undercooked – that problem was quickly fixed by the very attentive crew after we pointed out the problem, only to reappear again in a slightly undercooked lobster during Christmas night dinner. While it is way too easy to overcook fish and seafood, I expect that, as they become more familiar with the new kitchen, the cooks will get the timing down to science.
I saved the best for last. The short ribs, the meat so tender it seems to melt the second you put it in your mouth, are worth driving to Bethesda from anywhere in the DC area. And the duck – the subject of my frequent complaints and disappointments – is excellent at the Wildwood Kitchen; up until now, I thought that the Grapeseed’s duck was an uncontested champion, but now I believe it has found a worthy competitor.
If there are no tables available and you end up sitting at the bar, you may have actually received a winning ticket. Watching Giancarlo’s performance behind the bar is an event in itself, listening to his explanation of drinks and ingredients is an experience, and actually trying his superb creations is a pleasure that’d be hard to recreate anywhere in DC (definitely try a ginger martini!) Wildwood Kitchen also has a good selection of wines, leaning toward European offerings, with many bottles under $60.
When – not if – you decide to make the Wildwood Kitchen a regular part of your dining-out circuit, make sure you are on good terms with Maxwell Lipp, the friendly general manager running the place. Maxwell and his crew can work miracles accommodating the most unusual requests.
So, if you don’t have any plans for the New Year’s eve, why not come to the Wildwood Kitchen to make sure 2013 starts on an upbeat note?