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With 200-plus restaurants crammed into a geographic area a fraction of the size of downtown D.C., Bethesda is a dining mecca, but alas, density hasn’t produced quality. What it has produced is a restaurant scene of thriving not-badness. Bethesdans may hope for excellent restaurants, but they don’t demand them; what they demand is consistency, reliability, sociability.
The places that survive in this famously overentitled, overcrowded burb are those that aim neither too high nor too low, and that endear themselves to their audiences with the little things: bowing waiters, paper and crayons for the kiddies, the trappings of cafe society.
Pierre’s, the 3-month-old Caribbean restaurant on Cordell Avenue, boasts few such creature comforts—a patio with umbrellas is pretty much it—and although it’s clearly aiming to capture the middle, it seems, all the same, to be confused by just what this might mean in practice.
Island cooking, rooted in poverty, succeeds best when it doesn’t fancify itself too much. Or, less typically, when an adventurous, ambitious chef, inspired but not beholden to tradition, transforms such tropical staples as lime, ginger, coconut, and oxtail into creations that are at once old and new. Unfortunately, Pierre’s is content to play it safe at nearly every turn, calculating rather than simply letting loose, and hedging, especially, when it comes to laying on the heat. More important, perhaps, is that the simple, unadorned dishes that chef and owner Pierre Cummings excels at—his soothing and rich black-eyed-pea soup, his light and addictive conch fritters—are relegated to minority status, marginalized by the insistent upscaling of the rest of the menu.
You’ll moon over his juxtaposition of ingredients—pork with coffee and cocoa, for instance—but as often as not the dishes read better than they taste. Curried oysters in their shells atop a cucumber purée sound intriguing, but what ought to be a neatly arranged marriage of spicy hot and refreshing cool is undone by less-than-juicy bivalves.
Or consider the jerk pork loin with pumpkin gnocchi, a dish so full of hedging that it’s no longer all that interesting. Cummings uses the conventional and dull pork loin instead of a lusty hunk of pork shoulder, and he stints on the jerk—his rub imparts only the slightest whiff of spice. And in the version I had, I didn’t even get the pumpkin gnocchi. I got a teeming mound of mashed potatoes, the slices of overcooked pork draped around it in a weak approximation of the soaring, vertical plates that were all the rage 10 years ago. A sprig of rosemary, stuck atop the mound, sat slightly askew, like a fir in a stiff wind.
Mashed potatoes, as it happens, are the starch of choice for most of the main courses. And although they’re pretty good, soft and fluffy and perfectly comforting, you wonder if Cummings thinks that all he has to do to summon the spirit of the islands is to slap pictures of swaying palms on the menu and in the dining room.
His braised oxtail is meltingly tender, a bit of salty, slow-cooked lusciousness, but Cummings sees fit to force little spoonfuls of the stew into large, shell-like portions of tough, overcooked squid. Besides complicating things unnecessarily, this bit of fussiness results in an unfortunate moment at the table, when you slice into your squid and the oxtail oozes out like toothpaste. And there, again, are those mashed potatoes, making for an unappealing off-white-on-off-white creation.
A duck breast is, blessedly, mashed-potato-free; instead, it comes with a nice, sweet mash of sweet potatoes. It’s a pretty plate, the duck and the mash and a layer of plantains all perched atop a fan of asparagus spears, and if you’re drinking with a couple of friends on the patio, you might not care a whole lot that the duck is dry or that the reduction that naps the plate tastes, and looks, like gravy. The same goes for a lobster-and-leek “fondue,” which put me in mind of nothing so much as the quintessential rehearsal-dinner dish: gorgeous, Frenchified, costly, and dull.
It’s not that Cummings, who cooked in the banquet kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton, lacks technical know-how—his Chilean sea bass boasts golden, crispy edges, and a citrus sauce further brightened by the addition of capers makes a smart counterpoint. Too bad, then, that he doesn’t seek out a better source for his fish: The fillet is dismayingly stringy.
The calabasa risotto with pickled pork is the happiest union of the simple and the sophisticated that Cummings is presumably aiming for. The entire dish sings of curry, from the risotto with its pretty dice of pumpkin, to the crispy morsels of pork.
I say “presumably” because even after multiple visits it’s hard to figure out just what Cummings is trying to do. What’s with the pizzas and the Italian-style flatbread that arrives at the start of dinner? Just because the owners of Il Forno left you a pizza oven doesn’t mean you should be cranking out pies.
Given the cost of doing business in Bethesda, and the failure rate of restaurants that aim to join that 200-plus, a cynic might conclude that the pizza is merely another hedge—Cummings perfecting a new craft in case his current, uncertain venture should go under.
Pierre’s, 4926 Cordell Ave., Bethesda. (301) 652-7757. —Todd Kliman
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