Ask them about the name, and the staffers at the 5-week-old Red Dog Cafe in Silver Spring are prepared to deliver the full spiel, all happy coincidence and small-world wouldn’t-ya-know: How the restaurant is named for owner John Emanuelson’s 2-year-old golden retriever, Madison. How Emanuelson met chef Janice McLean at a party in the dog park they both frequent, just off nearby Seminary Road, and discovered not only that she was a fellow dog lover but also that she’d done stints in the kitchens at Red Sage and the Morrison-Clark Inn. How the elaborate, sumptuous spread she’d prepared for a picnic blew him away.
If you’re receptive, and if the kitchen isn’t slammed, a waiter or waitress might even go so far as to retrieve a framed photograph of the cafe’s namesake and soft-eyed logo, a picture so sentimental and cute that it would not be out of place on one of those animal calendars that lead ordinarily cynical, ironic sorts to coo, “Awww. Wook at dat faaace.”
He’s got a dog, he’s got a story—what more could he need? For a place that aims to draw heavily from Takoma Park and the cramped liberal-yuppie ghettos clustered around East-West Highway in Silver Spring, the warm fuzziness plays wonderfully well, giving rise, as it does, to fantasies of real, honest-to-God community.
But Emanuelson was smart enough to realize that though this chunk of primo real estate is technically a piece of suburbia, and though it has some of the amenities of suburbia, too—most notably, the leafy sanctuary of nearby Rock Creek Park—it is, spiritually speaking, not entirely suburban. The locals like to think of themselves as not too far removed from their single days in Dupont, and Emanuelson’s design is hip to this vibe. Although it affords customers a view of nothing more urban than a strip-mall parking lot, the plate-glass front window retracts like an adaptive-reuse garage door; the industrial-style ceiling is all exposed beams and soaring heights; and the walls are festooned with tiny track lights that make the cafe’s framed abstract prints pop out against the lemon-poppy walls in full galleria style.
Given this blend of neighborliness and easygoing urbanity, it’s no surprise that the kitchen should take its inspiration from the cuisine of Northern California, where Berkeley-crunchy meets Italian country and discovers they have more than a few things in common: good ingredients, simple, seasonal preparations, and bright Mediterranean accents.
The surprise is that it’s the handful of entrees, not the starters, sandwiches, and pizzas, that tend to show the kitchen at its best. The cedar-plank salmon flakes beautifully, its orange-pink flesh offering up a subtly smoky, woodsy savor; it’s equally fine in a supporting role, turning up in a meal-size spinach-and-arugula salad that is bright and lively with its rings of red onion, shaved fennel, and nicely balanced citrus dressing. In contrast to so many entree salads these days, it doesn’t come across as though the kitchen is trying to pawn off its leftovers. The same goes for the braised-duck salad, with its wonderfully mellow roasted grapes, port-wine vinaigrette, and thick, ropy strands of meat (“pulled,” barbecue-style, from duck that has been cooked just a wee bit past peak fatty lusciousness). Chicken roasted under a foil-wrapped brick—a Tuscan-style preparation—is almost confitlike, crispy and yet also soft and tender along the thigh and leg (though the breast is disappointingly dry). The ribs, thick and meaty, with a sweet, ketchupy glaze, are as hearty as it gets here: a blast of down-home, lip-smacking Carolina in the midst of so much Left Coast cool, about as good as can be expected from anyplace that’s not a smoke shack.
Many of the dishes here emerge wholly or in part from the wood-burning oven, the by-now-obligatory kitchen aid of the contemporary American bistro, as standard as a grill or fridge. A decade or so ago, you might have taken it on faith, assuming that anything that came in contact with it was pretty much a sure thing. But nowadays there are no sure things—not even when it comes to bread.
Unless, of course, you count inconsistency. A good black-olive tapenade is nearly undone by its accompanying “breadsticks,” doughy wedges of house-baked focaccia with a pronounced Parmesan crusting, against which the sharp, briny flavors of the paste struggle to register. In the case of the artisanal goat cheese, a slowly melting mound surrounded by a moat of caramelized-tomato sauce, it’s the equally doughy garlic-focaccia wedges, meant for dipping, that get in the way of an otherwise tasty concoction. If you’re looking for a happy marriage, consider the trio of snackbreads, with its thin, chewy, slightly sour rounds of flatbread and its smart, understated combos (shredded chicken and radicchio, Italian sausage and red onion, carmelized tomato and herbs).
The pizzas—minimal saucing, crispy, chewy crust—are still works in progress. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the gorgonzola pie—which ought to be renamed the caramelized onion, given its streusel-like coating of sweet, slow-cooked slivers—had been shipped in from an Italian trattoria somewhere along the edges of Napa. It was a keeper. A couple of visits later, the recollection of that pie was what convinced me to go ahead and order the similarly misnamed Margherita—tomatoes in addition to tomato sauce—even though our table was already covered with an array of dishes. But the pizza that arrived was so gooey with mozzarella, and so limp as a result, that it wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that it had been brought in from a CPK.
Sandwiches are generously portioned, not to mention gorgeous to look at—the two Italian-style ripieghis, in particular. With its nest of watercress tumbling from a folded, lightly blistered flatbread and a creamy, cucumber-yogurt dressing oozing from the sides, the roasted-lemon-chicken ripieghi does not lack for either abundance or freshness. Its meat, the presumed star, is surprisingly colorless, though, as if the sandwich were intended as a statement about the proper role of protein in relation to produce and bread.
Simplicity of this kind is exceedingly difficult to pull off, and although McLean’s desire not to fancy things up unduly is admirable, a demonstration of her essential egolessness as a chef, you wish she would assert herself just a tiny bit more. The lone soup—a warm asparagus—is appealingly fresh and springlike but somewhat texturally challenging, with a rough-hewn, thready quality that feels clumsily homemade. The chili, however—a concoction of chuck steak, ancho purée, and black beans that won final approval from a select panel of dog-park patrons—is the sort of picnic food you’d get if, well, you invited along a chef (albeit one not particularly bold with the spices). Likewise, the mac and cheese—a bowl of warm, perfectly cooked penne luxuriating under a shower of aged cheddar—is a far cry from the orangey goo you gulped down in college. Equally good are the mussels, which hit the table in pretty copper cookers fresh from the fire, sweet and plump and lightly smoky, though I found myself wishing for more body from the broth, if only for the additional pleasure of swabbing the accompanying hunks of bread in the juice (which, of course, is half of the reason you order mussels).
I almost feel like a scold for expressing such quibblings and grumpings, given that such a lovable, sloppy pup of a place is trying so darn hard to win my affection. But hey, if Red Dog is going to mature into the fine, companionable adult it shows every indication of eventually becoming, I think a little firm voice is in order.
Red Dog Cafe, 8301-A Grubb Road, Silver Spring, (301) 588-6300. —Todd Kliman
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