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I was talking with a friend recently about Adega Wine Cellars and Cafe, having sent him off to dinner there with several recommendations. He told me that, although he liked the food, he wasn’t all that crazy about eating off plastic, referring to Adega’s black plastic plates and clear plastic wine glasses, which lend the small, waiterless dining area the air of a makeshift dinner party. He wrinkled up his nose as he said the word, as though I had neglected to share with him some essential bit of information before sending him off into the wild on an important mission.
But I ask him, and you, too: Which would you rather have? Plastic plates adorned with thoughtfully prepared, sometimes very good food, or a restaurant that is itself plastic, with canned atmosphere and dull, generic dishes?
No restaurant is an island, and that’s especially true of a place like Adega, which has to be looked at within the context of its suddenly sprouting neighborhood. Downtown Silver Spring may well be undergoing a renaissance, at least where the generation of capital is concerned, thanks to the AFI Silver, the Majestic 20, and a string of shiny new boxes all set to move into. But when it comes to eating, the place has become so clotted, so quickly, with interchangeable chains (Red Lobster, Panera, Potbelly Sandwich Works, and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, among others, are open now, and there are more to come) that it exudes all the charm of a suburban mall.
By itself, Adega would be a welcome addition to any neighborhood, but seen against this prefab backdrop it begins to take on a greater significance.
Strictly speaking, the place isn’t even a restaurant—it’s a wine store with food, as not just the name but also the physical space makes clear. (Actually, the name is a redundancy—adega means “wine cellar” in Portuguese). There are only three tables with seating for more than two, and almost half the store is devoted to pushing product—Bobby Flay sauces, imported pastas and crackers, olive oils, and, of course, wine. Be forewarned: You won’t find a lot of great deals on the juice. (Blame the liquor laws of Montgomery County, which cop a not insignificant share of the profits from the sale of booze and make it hard for anyone in the county to compete with D.C. prices.) But even if you’re not likely to bite on a bottle, owner Walter Rhee, a former wine rep and retailer, has made it difficult to resist indulging in a glass or two while you’re there. It’s five bucks, at most, for a generous pour—or as little as $2.25 during the ingratiatingly long happy hour, Monday through Friday, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.—and the pickings are comparable to what you might find at a midlevel restaurant that had put some thought into its list. And if drinking wine out of plastic glasses takes some adjustment, you’re probably farther removed from the romance of your striving youth than you’d care to admit. (Rhee, who has gone from flyweight plastic glasses to more solid, molded plastic glasses, claims to be considering a move to glass.)
The small, smartly conceived menu is the handiwork of consulting chef Bruno Silva, who previously worked at Citronelle—a fact that was whispered breathlessly among customers last fall and winter as they stood in line to place their orders. Silva is gone now, having left in February when his contract ran out—he was “between jobs,” says Rhee, adding that “he was extremely overqualified for this position to begin with.” Silva was a meticulous and often precise craftsman, artful in his plating. His smoked-salmon roll-ups, a happy-hour special, looked like something he might have cooked up for the company picnic at Michel Richard’s: four sushilike rolls fanned out around a tiny ball of golden, deep-fried rice with a crisscross of chives laid gently atop as garnish.
If you didn’t know Adega when Silva was around, you would still probably think that you had stumbled upon a neat little place if you came across it today. And you would have—just not as neat a little place as before. Under Silva, pasta jambalaya was an abundance of perfectly cooked penne, lightly bound in an herbed cream sauce and studded with slices of juicy white-meat chicken, a handful of butterflied jumbo shrimp, some thick coins of good-quality andouille sausage, and a cluster of diced tomatoes—a certifiable deal for 11 bucks. It’s still a tasty dish, but Silva’s rigor is conspicuously absent: The pasta is a tad overcooked, and the tomatoes all run together. Capellini fresca—stringy pasta tossed with cubes of soft, stretchy mozzarella, sweet tomatoes, and torn basil—is likewise delicious, just not the looker it once was. The ahi tuna salad is the surprise, as good (and dramatic, with matching triangles of flatbread jutting from the plate) as ever. The sushi-grade fish, dark and sweet, is cut into three equal, ingot-sized pieces, then crusted in black and white sesame seeds and quickly seared; it’s matched by the helping of delicately dressed greens, which have a surprising brightness and tang to them. Only the accompanying gingered sushi rice is a dud.
Entrees are few, presumably so as not to tax the tiny, thinly staffed kitchen. The selection of soups is also small, and, as with the entrees, the judiciousness pays off. A luscious tomato-basil is the standby; in my eight or so visits over the past half-year, the kitchen has also featured a pretty good tortilla soup, a good corn chowder, and a very good clam chowder—as appealing a bowl as you’re likely to find outside New England at this price. No gumminess, no overload of cubed potatoes, and none of the gnarly bits that generally pass for clams in these parts. The bivalves are big and juicy, and the kitchen doesn’t stint on them. The only clunker I’ve come across was a bowl of potato-leek soup, the floury aftertaste signaling a roux that had not cooked long enough.
A raft of sandwiches and wraps takes up most of the rest of the menu. At a time when throwing together six or seven fancy ingredients in the hope that they might coalesce seems to be the ruling principle of “gourmet” sandwich-making, Adega mostly resists the trend. The emphasis, here, is on good, crusty breads and well-chosen meats and cheeses (blush-red roast beef and thick-sliced brie in the Duke Ellington; soft, flaky salmon and mascarpone in the Salmon Club) with a minimum of distractions.
Still, not everything is worthy of the high-quality ingredients. The crab cake is nearly undone by a hefty bun that dulls a sweet, well-made cake; its zigzag of what looks to be mustard is in fact a yellow-pepper sauce that vies too hard for your attention. And the burger, a half-pound of meat soaked in a cabernet reduction, topped with aioli, and nestled between two exquisitely dimpled slices of rosemary flatbread, crosses the line into too upscale for its own good. Though all sandwiches come with excellent kettle-cooked chips, I’d spring for the eggplant fries, a frequent special: a mound of virtually greaseless sticks of deep-fried eggplant sprinkled with chopped parsley and Parmesan, with a small cup of marinara for dipping.
It’s enormous, more than enough for two or even three to share. And those who, like my friend, are still not sold on the notion of eating good-quality food off picnicware, take note: You won’t even be able to see the plastic.
Adega Wine Cellars and Cafe, 8519 Fenton Street, Silver Spring, (301) 608-2200. —Todd Kliman
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