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Most of the times I find myself in a restaurant that wants to do more than feed me—a place that wants to give me an “experience”—I’m reminded of that age-old argument about which person you’d rather spend time with: the person who is ignorant or the person who is pretentious?
So when Alan Popovsky, the creator of Felix and Spy Lounge in Adams Morgan, claimed in a publicity release that his newest venture would be an upscale “speakeasy with affordable cuisine” and touted the installation of a baby grand in the middle of the dining room, I figured on staying as far from Grille 88 Restaurant and Piano Bar as I could get. Here, it seemed, was yet another restaurant that was less interested in serving dinner than in aspiring to deliver a sort of dinner theater. But I wandered in anyway one not particularly busy day.
The baby grand, sitting empty in the middle of the dining room’s blue cement floor, seems like little more than a massive centerpiece. All the design decisions, from the positioning of the tables to the cool sleekness of the light fixtures, seem to follow from the piano’s presence in the room. And not just the design decisions: The menu boasts dishes named for Billy Joel and Elton John—and, if you’d prefer a small-plates option to a regular-sized entree, you can order up a “half-note.”
Such cheesy thematics are enough to make you wonder if you’ve stumbled upon a more expensive version of TGIFriday’s, but in fact, the latest addition to the three-block stretch of restaurants south of Adams Morgan is a surprisingly serious place to eat. Popovsky made a smart choice in tapping Brad Smith, formerly his sous chef at Felix and the chef de cuisine at Addie’s in Rockville, to run the kitchen. Smith’s new menu is a smaller, simpler version of the one at Addie’s, with the same emphasis on fresh fish and vegetables and locally grown produce, and the same fondness for stylized comfort food.
What separates Grille 88 (the name—surprise—is a reference to the number of keys on a piano) from the depressingly long list of self-consciously stylish places that pay more attention to attracting the right clientele than to serving good food is that it doesn’t try to get too fancy in the kitchen. No elaborate garnish towers that draw your attention away from the thoroughly earthbound meal below. No juxtaposing of flavors that have no real business going together. Grille 88 is the perfect sort of place for people who want mood, who want atmosphere, who want to see and be seen, but who were never all that crazy about arugula to begin with.
It’s telling that when Smith uses shiitake mushrooms, he’s not just throwing around some fancy ingredients. He’s got a larger purpose—to impart an earthy richness to an otherwise mild-mannered turkey meatloaf. I’m ambivalent at best about the upscaling of comfort food. When it works, it reinvigorates old favorites; when it doesn’t, it only makes you yearn for the homey dish you thought you were getting. If Grille 88’s braised lamb shanks succeed, it’s because of their straightforward approach. No surprises here: The shanks, allowed to simmer for hours in a fragrant wine sauce, have achieved that peak of tenderness that owes everything to the kitchen’s patience. This is a dish to savor, especially if you’ve saved your basket of bread—lately, a handful of firm, yeasty rolls.
Less successful is the artichoke-crusted salmon in brick pastry. The pastry is flaky, but the baking that turns the dough a crisp, golden brown also dries out the fish. And the delicacy of the artichoke slivers that “crust” the fillet is lost under all those additional layers of pastry. The grilled Chesapeake rockfish I ordered on the last of my three visits suffered from careless prep work—too many pin bones, which repeatedly undermined my enjoyment of the delicate flakes of fish. And although the white-cheddar grits cake alone would be an ideal complement, intensifying the sweetness of the fish, its sweet balsamic glaze begins to seem like too much intensification.
With its half-note offerings, the menu encourages you to roam and sample a bit. I’m inclined toward eating this way anyway—I’d eat dim sum every week if I could find enough good places that offer it—but the slow, leisurely pace really does seem to be the best way to appreciate Grille 88. My tablemate and I ordered six dishes on my second visit, lingering for hours on a hot, midweek night in the main dining room and listening to some terrific jazz piano. (The quality of the playing varies considerably—the single inconsistency in an otherwise thoroughly consistent place.) The staff is, for the most part, knowledgeable about the menu and inclined to let you dictate the rhythm of things—the only pushiness comes at the start, when you’re asked to choose between mineral or spring water. (“Neither,” I told my waitress, imparting an edge to my voice to indicate my displeasure with the hard sell. “OK,” she said, cool as could be, “I’ll just bring you some of D.C.’s finest.”)
Like the entrees, the small plates are best when they’re uncluttered. The bruschetta is six rounds of pumpernickel toast topped with garlicky Kalamata olives, a thick and fragrant olive oil, and tomatoes so sweet and juicy it’s as if they’d been macerated with a little sugar. The clams casino is an improvement on the cardiac-arresting classic: Smith douses six littlenecks in a sweet onion butter, then crumbles applewood-smoked bacon over the top. The neatest touch here is the least impressive-sounding—the finishing sprinkle of diced red bell pepper, which, amid all that fatty ooze, adds a counterbalancing crunchy bitterness. The one must-have salad is the “Grille 88 Greens.” They don’t come any more unadorned than this: roma tomatoes, sliced Bermuda onions, and generous crumblings of Maytag blue cheese atop a fluff of field greens. I’ve had burgers that weren’t half as satisfying.
The exception to the simpler-is-better-rule would seem to be the nachos. Smith apparently had so much fun in reconfiguring this happy-hour standby that he decided to go ahead and serve up two different versions—”Atlantic” and “Pacific.” The key substitution is a bed of fried wontons for tortilla chips. The “Atlantic” tops them with smoked trout, onions, capers, chopped egg, and a dill sour cream; the “Pacific” goes Asian—ginger smoked salmon, creme fraiche, scallions, sesame seeds, and flying-fish roe. This is adventurousness, not showoffiness, and the result is surprisingly subtle finger food. That it still delivers what nachos are supposed to—a salty, crunchy good time—is all the more impressive.
Like so much else about this restaurant, first impressions are largely misleading. Grille 88 may come on frivolously, but underneath the gimmick is a simple, detail-oriented, carefully run place that aims to please. And does, often.
Grille 88 Restaurant and Piano Bar, 1910 18th St. NW, (202) 588-5288. —Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.