Wed 5 Aug 2009
Sure, DC Restaurant Week is just around the corner, but we couldn’t wait. So when we heard that Bethesda-Chevy Chase Restaurant Week was taking place last week, we decided to check out one of the participating restaurants that had come highly recommended: Grapeseed American Bistro and Wine Bar. It didn’t disappoint.
As it turns out, Grapeseed is extending their Restaurant Week special through August 9th. For those of us living in DC, it’s a great excuse to head up to Bethesda and check them out. For those of you who live in the area, it’s an opportunity to enjoy some of the best of what your local wine bar has to offer at a substantial discount. In short, this is exactly the kind of Restaurant Week experience we wish more participants would deliver.
A word of caution, though: Grapeseed isn’t out to impress you with their decor. There’s little to Grapeseed’s exterior that hints at the depth of its wine list or the strength of its cuisine. Walking in the front door, the same can be said of the host stand and the main dining room (which can get rather noisy during busy times). It isn’t until you walk down the hallway past the row of cozy two-top booths and the Wine Room that you get a sense of refinement and quality.
Even so, our eyes lit up when we were seated and handed the wine list. Boasting 500 selections, including almost a hundred by the glass and/or the ‘taste’ (half glass), this was a list to be taken seriously. I noticed a few of our favorites as I flipped through the pages and smiled at the fact that my favorite reds (Zinfandels) rated their own section of the list. But we were there for dinner, so we limited ourselves to the wines by the glass – a Zinfandel for me (anticipating big flavors) and a Cava for Elizabeth (what doesn’t go with sparkling wine?).
We were off to a good start, but we were getting a bit hungry. And that’s when they hit us with their secret weapon…a dip of roasted tomatoes and garlic in olive oil that turned decent bread into a craveable pre-appetizer. Talk about a pleasant surprise! A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou sounds great; just make sure you remember the dip for the bread. Already impressive, and we hadn’t even placed our orders yet.
A menu paired to wine (instead of vice-versa) and vegetarian options to make a carnivore reconsider after the jump.
For Restaurant Week, Grapeseed is offering any three courses from their menu for $35 per person. Want an appetizer, a salad and an entree? You got it. Prefer a salad, an entree and a dessert? No problem. Two appetizers and a dessert? They’ll do it, but you’re shortchanging yourself on that deal. With entrees that normally average $25 to $35 each and appetizers in the $8-12 range, the Restaurant Week offering definitely works in your favor (though there are upcharges for marquee entrees like the filet mignon and the scallops).
At the top of your menu, you’ll find a note: “At Grapeseed we develop each dish to match a specific wine. We pick out the nuances of each wine and create a dish that highlights those characteristics.” Naturally, those inspirational wines are listed after each dish (including the appetizers, or ‘beginnings’) and you can order them by the taste or the glass to “see if you agree with our matches.” The idea conjured images of some reverse sommelier, diligently tasting each wine and then offering recommendations on the dishes that would complement them.
For this visit, however, we opted to stick with the wines we ordered at the beginning of our meal. In the absence of a truly tempting dessert option, we each chose an appetizer, a salad and an entree. I started out with fried local oysters, coated in cornmeal and served with a bacon beurre blanc. Elizabeth was sold on the sauteed calamari with tomato, lemon and chorizo. In the end, I’ve got to give the edge to her calamari. It was tender (not at all chewy) and the acid in the lemon and the tomato really cut into the overall richness of the dish nicely. Though my oysters were still plump and delicious, the complexity of Elizabeth’s dish really impressed us.
We moved on to the “middles,” soups and salads to you and me. I’m a sucker for gazpacho, so my mind was made up as soon as the first syllable was out of the server’s mouth. Elizabeth, on the other hand, went with an heirloom tomato salad served ‘up’ in a martini glass. Each was bright and flavorful, but the portions were a bit disappointing. As part of a full three-course meal they were fine, but it was difficult to determine what it was about them that warranted prices approaching $10 each. On flavor alone, my gazpacho won out.
But I do want to stress the underwhelming servings of our “middles” to anyone who may be reading this review after Restaurant Week has ended. If you’re contemplating spending $8 on a bowl of gazpacho like the one in the picture above, you need to take a look at the view on the right – that enticing bowl of pureed summer is about as shallow as a VH1 Celebreality star. As the image shows, the bowl is no deeper than the spoon that accompanied it, providing just a few scoops of gazpacho per serving. The flavors are great, but the value’s just not there.
Thankfully, our entrees (sorry, “ends”) provided a course correction and we both ended on a high note. Elizabeth selected the scallops you saw before the jump, seared beautifully and served atop a puree of Yukon Gold potatoes with a side of crisped cauliflower. It was a terrific combination of textures and flavors, with the slight sweetness of the scallops playing into the buttery, lightly salted potatoes and the smokiness of the cauliflower. A winner, and well worth the $4 upcharge.
For my entree, I went against my normally carnivorous nature and opted for the single vegetarian selection among the entrees: portobello mushroom chilaquiles surrounded by squash in a tomatillo salsa verde. The Mexican-inflected dish may have seemed out of place on the generally Mediterranean menu, but the tang of the tomatillo and the spices throughout the dish explained its popularity (and the waiter’s enthusiastic recommendation when I asked him his preference between two dishes). I enjoyed the dish thoroughly and didn’t think twice about whether or not it ‘belonged’ on the menu. It’s enough to make a man consider going vegetarian – at least once in a while.
For $35 per person before tax and tip, we got a great meal at Grapeseed that felt reflective of the standard dining experience. If we find ourselves planning to meet up with friends in Bethesda anytime soon, we now have a new place to suggest for good food and great wine in a laid-back atmosphere. And I’ve got a renewed respect for chefs that put real thought into their vegetarian offerings.