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My first encounter with Carole Greenwood came not long after I started this job in early 2006. I had called Greenwood for an innocuous little column about what ingredients—fruit, vegetable, or protein—chefs would alter if they had the power to manipulate genetics. Greenwood returned my call with a question for me:
“Are you a man or a boy?”
I never did understand the inquiry, or its context, but I obviously got a straight shot of that famous Greenwood eccentricity. Or force of personality. Or hostility. Whatever you want to call it. It was just another facet of the same demanding soul who battled with bloggers over photographing her food at Buck’s Fishing & Camping, refused diners’ requests for substitutions, and viewed herself more like Jackson Pollock than kitchen poissonier.
“I don’t cook to make people happy,” she told Washington City Paper back when Todd Kliman held this job. “I cook because I’m an artist. And food is my medium.”
However you view Greenwood—and one source’s impression of her was filled with caution: “a 10-foot pole!”—you had to think that her obsessive attention to detail and singular devotion to the ingredient would be hard to replace and that her two restaurants, Buck’s and Comet Ping-Pong, would suffer greatly without her. At least
that’s what I thought when Greenwood announced this year that she was ditching her restaurant
career in favor of family, art, music, and writing. Who on earth could replace the mad genius of Carole Greenwood?
It turns out that Vickie Reh and Laura Bonino can. Reh is now the chef at Buck’s, while Bonino has assumed that title at Comet, the pizzeria just a couple of doors down. The fact that James Alefantis, Greenwood’s former business partner at both restaurants, hired two chefs to replace one might tell you something.
It could tell you that Greenwood’s talent was so immense no single person could replace her or that even the great Greenwood couldn’t keep up with the many requirements of both kitchens.
Or perhaps it means something that I never considered until I spoke with Alefantis on the phone: that both Buck’s and Comet were designed as restaurant concepts first—and chef vehicles second. While both Buck’s and Comet are, in their own way, chef-driven restaurants, the chefs are always subservient to the concept, the owner says. And here I thought Carole Greenwood was subservient to no one.
The first sign of their concept-first approach came way back in 2003, when the new partners changed the name of the restaurant from Greenwood to Buck’s. From the beginning, Alefantis says, he was a collaborator in his restaurants, from interior design to menu-planning. “Everything that went on the menu, we worked on it together,” Alefantis says. He and Greenwood would talk through each dish, says Alefantis, a self-taught cook, from concept down to individual ingredients. He performs the same role today.
If Alefantis was dismantling my notions of Buck’s and Comet—no longer were they pure reflections of Carole Greenwood’s art and ego—then he was also constructing the reasons why both restaurants are doing so swimmingly without their former chef. Their concepts are sturdy enough to support different talents in the kitchen.
Reh, former sous chef at Food Matters in Alexandria and a wine consultant, has bought into the Buck’s system as if she were a founding partner. Her menu (with the exception of the fish tacos, which are slightly crispy as if trying to channel Tex-Mex) fits comfortably into Alefantis and Greenwood’s original vision for Buck’s: rustic American food prepared with seasonal ingredients sourced from local suppliers. (Well, within reason; those lobsters are still from Maine and the bronzino, back in the day, came from the Adriatic, which must have created a carbon footprint the size of a small taxi fleet.)
The revamped Buck’s carries few traces of Greenwood’s old menus, save for the wedge salad and the signature slab of dry-aged prime sirloin steak, which was a smart move. I would have called for a military tribunal had they killed off that steak, this thick, gorgeously charred piece of meat whose flavors have been intensified through time, seasonings, and the hot, smoky flames of a wood grill.
In fact, that grill, fueled by a mix of oak and hickory, flavors many of my current favorites at Buck’s. Now, perhaps you think of the wood grill as a bludgeon of the kitchen, beating every ingredient until it tastes of smoke and char. Reh will disabuse you of that notion. Her wood-grilled lamb may be underseasoned, but I swear you can almost taste the New Zealand grasses (that carbon baby grows fatter) in every bite of these Frenched chops. Even more impressive is Reh’s appetizer of smoked fish; she manages to impart grill flavor while maintaining the integrity of the trout, Spanish mackerel, and, particularly, the sable, which is as moist and buttery as you could want.
With that said, I’d argue that Buck’s, during my visits in early October, was clinging to summer with the desperation of a college student. Corn and tomatoes stubbornly
remained on menu; not that I was complaining in the case of Reh’s appetizer of heirloom tomatoes paired with her housemade cottage cheese, at once creamy and toothsome. But still, a seasonal restaurant requires better calendar awareness.
The same faint echo of summer could be heard at Comet, where Bonino’s typically fresh and flavorful watermelon salad, accented with blood-orange oil and basil, was starting to show signs of age earlier this month. But I’d choose a mushy, degraded version of that salad over Bonino’s “The Hottie,” this misbegotten pizza loaded with thick green rounds of jalapeño still bearing seeds. The pie supplied more heat than a nuclear accident.
Everything else I sampled at the re-imagined Comet, though, was cool as can be. Baker Farid Fellag’s presence has solved one of the pizzeria’s historical problems, namely its inconsistent dough, which was sometimes salty, moist, and chewy and other times dry and crackery. The dough has settled into a consistent profile—thin, crackery, and chewy around the cornicione. It provides a flavorful canvas for Bonino’s best pies: the “Match Point,” a sort of sauceless Margherita spiked with roasted garlic, and the “Yalie,” a clam pizza sweetened with caramelized onions and brightened with the subtlest use of thyme. The dough is even the star of Bonino’s sausage-and-ricotta calzone, a sophisticated stuffed pie that has made me rethink my contrarian stance on this cheese bomb.
I never thought I’d say this, but neither Buck’s nor Comet misses Carole Greenwood.
Buck’s Fishing & Camping, 5031 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 364-0777
Comet Ping-Pong, 5037 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 364-0404
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 221. twitter.com/timcarman