Logan Tavern wants desperately that we should think of it as a neighborhood restaurant—which, in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, seems to be pushing it a bit. As much as it is a restaurant, it’s a shrewd gambit of a place, a kind of temporary community center that aspires to give the well-heeled new denizens of Logan Circle the illusion of stability and permanence they so desperately crave.
The look is appropriately relicked, with its unfinished, unvarnished floors, its black-painted wood, and its aged communal table in the center of the room. That such striving for down-and-dirty rusticity takes place across the street from a Whole Foods and next door to a soon-to-be luxury-penthouse building is incongruous only if you don’t plug into the restaurant’s vibe, a sort of rough-and-tumble gay aesthetic familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a bunch of male models not quite sweating it up while pitching the football around in those old Abercrombie & Fitch commercials.
In this context, it makes perfect sense that you swipe a slice of crusty country white bread into a plate of pooled olive oil as you scan the chalkboard of beers. The beers, by the way, are available only in bottles. This might be the only tavern in the city that carries nothing on tap. “The bar,” a waitress explained one night, “is too small for taps.” The more truthful answer: Logan is just not that kind of tavern. The ownership group, which first tried its managing hand at Grillfish, has extended the same clever formula to the menu. The bar food is given a modest upscale gloss, while the more serious entrees are given dinerlike treatment. The former is meant to make patrons think they aren’t eating in something so lowdown and dirty as a bar; the latter aims to reassure them that they can drop by anytime they want and find themselves in the company of the familiar and hearty.
It might work if the kitchen were more detail-conscious. Instead, the bar food lacks the unassuming simplicity it needs, and the entrees, far from coming across as the comforting and homey dishes they were intended to be, seem merely sloppily rendered.
The menu lists 16 starters, which range from salads to composed plates to the fried and cheesy. On the first of my three visits, I interpreted the sheer number of small-plates options as a sign of confidence from the kitchen. I wasn’t alone—glancing around me, I saw a number of tables that evidently had also decided that constructing a meal this way was the surest route to getting the absolute best out of their experience. Unfortunately, there is no surest route. There may not even be a route.
Sweetness is a particular problem at Logan Tavern. Hoisin ribs would benefit from a few tweaks to the cloying glaze along with more careful cooking—you can find both tender and tough bits in the same heaping batch. The lightly grilled calamari are surprisingly tender if not all that flavorful, but the sweet ginger sauce that accompanies them is about as subtle as a McNugget dip: more sweet than gingery. The contingent of Asian-themed plates is rounded out by a Thai shrimp seviche and a plate of Asian wings, which, if not quite as sweet as expectations might suggest, are a good deal sweeter than they ought to be.
The rest of the small plates are filled with substantial, gooey fare, executed with discomfiting clumsiness. Baked manouri cheese arrives in a sealed foil pouch, the aluminum exterior so unappetizingly blistered that you can’t help but think of the time you put a wedge of lasagna in the oven to reheat, then got diverted by a phone call and forgot about it. The salty cheese with amatriciana sauce that lies beneath those folds of foil is not so bad as it looks—but you’ll be hard put to talk yourself into believing it’s not leftovers. The buffalo shrimp with blue-cheese sauce and the grilled shrimp scampi are virtually indistinguishable: In the first, four plump, lightly fried shrimp are doused with an oleaginous goo the color of taco grease. The second features a garlicky butter sauce that is speckled with black, metallic-tasting flecks from four shrimp that have been left too long on the grill.
Sandwiches aim for an appealing sort of simplicity but miss—a creation of Swiss cheese, slab bacon, and tomato arrives both overdone on the outside and underdone on the inside. The Maryland lump-crab roll is nicely crabby and spills over from its perch of bread, but the assertive, weedy presence of tarragon in the binding mayo overwhelms the delicate taste of the crab. The burger comes properly cooked to order—a companion who asks for hers well-done is served a patty with just a hint of pink in the center—but, despite the sautéed onions and mushrooms and layer of provolone, it stops short of being luscious. And the kitchen has yet to realize that you cannot get by with serving up overcooked fries.
The more complicated stuff suffers from inevitable comparison with more refined presentations at higher-end restaurants. Seared tuna with tropical fruit and baby-spinach salad, a starter, and the grilled tuna “the Grillfish Way,” an entree, are pointed reminders that some things are not meant to be midleveled, especially not a soft, silky fish that requires constant vigilance on the part of a kitchen, lest it calcify, as it does here, into something beige and inedible. And the main appeal of dishes such as the roasted pork loin in a sweet Asian mustard and the (regrettably) wasabi-crusted meatloaf, each of which is brought to the table in huge, home-style platters napped with creamy mashed potatoes, is not culinary. The attraction is the supposedly reasonable price tag—12 bucks for the meatloaf, 16 for the pork loin. In fact, only the blue-cheese-stuffed filet mignon tops $20.
Logan Tavern is not the only place in the city to engage in this sort of strategic marketing. To judge by the proliferation of bar menus around town, it appears to be good business sense for new restaurants to court a loyal following of the young and prosperous who (so the thinking goes) don’t mind paying a little more for generic, chainified food so long as it comes with enough high-end frills—and so long as they can sup in an atmosphere that affirms their sense of worth in a city that is inclined to see them as interlopers.
So far at least, Logan Tavern delivers only on that last count. That makes it a disappointment, yes. But as those Loganites impatient at the rate of progress in their can’t-gentrify-fast-enough neighborhood will probably tell you, any early critical judgment must be appended with this crucial qualification: It’s their disappointing neighborhood restaurant.
Logan Tavern, 1423 P St. NW, (202) 332-3710.—Todd Kliman
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