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Some restaurants conjure a specific time and place, but Arbor Restaurant and Wine Bar evokes one of those yuppie furniture catalogs that promises a life of simple, carefree pleasure. The bistro, which opened this spring in the 18th Street space formerly occupied by the Belmont Kitchen, is a paean to the spirit of Crate & Barrel, from the clean, contemporary lines of the patio tables and slat-backed chairs to the sculpted heft of the silverware. On nights when the weather is warm, the restaurant flings open its doors and the whole place is alive with laughter and cigarette smoke and roving, cocktail-party eyes. If this sounds less like a place to eat than a club to see and be seen in, that’s not by accident.
More than anything else, Arbor wants you to think of it as somewhere you can go to lounge and talk and drink wineas if it were an oasis of casual sophistication, a retreat from the chaotic streets of Adams Morgan. As if, in sitting at its tables and doing the watching, you were not yourself among the great unwashed watched outside. It’s restaurant as soundstage, as theaterwhich is why asking for much more than a few hours of grazing and people-watching is probably asking for too much.
Arbor’s kitchen, like those of a lot of midlevel American restaurants, turns out a variation on the cuisine that Alice Waters made famous more than two decades ago at Berkeley, Calif.’s, Chez Panisse. At a time when the personal was political, even cooking had become a radical act, and Waters’ manifesto urged chefs to seek out the freshest local ingredients and serve them simply. Over the years, this model has been co-opted by countless restaurants, from trendy cafes to T.G.I. Friday’s, all of them cranking out pale imitations of Waters’ once-revolutionary cooking, which has become a kind of default national cuisine. The result? The by-now obligatory repertoire of fried-calamari this and portobello that, with a balsamic vinaigrette splashed willy-nilly over every available surface.
That’s certainly the case with Arbor’s bruschetta, which boasts top-of-the-line ingredientsripe roma tomatoes, fresh Parmesan, strong olive oil and balsamicobut is drenched in vinegar, which obscures the natural sweetness of the tomatoes and reduces the toast to mush. The fried calamari is similarly smothered, this time with chopped jalapeños and scallions. It’s a neat, enlivening touch, but one that ultimately proves a diversionary tactic, because the squid itself is unforgivably chewy and bland. Much better is the misnamed tuna tartare, whose twin slabs of fishseared without the usual encrusting of black pepper, coriander, or toasted sesamesit atop a bed of soggy spinach, which sits atop a puddle of sesame-soy-ginger dipping sauce. The fish, though, is sushi-grade, and, at $11.95, it’s as firm and silky as you would expect.
As with the Cheesecake Factory, whose well-heeled middlebrow clientele it aims to attract, no one can accuse Arbor of holding back on the portions. The appetizers are more than generousin fact, they’re so supersized that they might as well be entrees. The usual problem of divvying a dish among a table of four or five or six is not a problem here. Indeed, you could probably bypass the rest of the menu, order a couple of starters and a bottle of one of Arbor’s
reasonably priced wines, and easily kill a few happy hours here among friends.
Did I say “could”? Make that “should.”
Venturing beyond the first page of the menu one slow, midweek night, I ordered the chicken-avocado salad, the image of the avocado in my head a cool, creamy antidote to the brutal August heat. But when the plate appeared, there was no avocado to speak of; the kitchen had simply forgotten, the waitress explained sheepishly, setting down a plate of green slices some 15 minutes later.
I shouldn’t have complained, because as I worked my way through the rest of the entrees, I ended up wishing the kitchen had been absent-minded more often. The wild-mushroom ravioli is a good example of a dish that might benefit from subtraction, its savory, peppery filling overpowered by a too-rich, too-thick beurre blanc dotted with superfluous sautéed peppers and roasted asparagus.
The steak frites, by contrast, succeeds, because it’s hard to get too fussy with a slab of beef and some friesthough I can’t say that Arbor doesn’t try, slathering on a sauce that tastes suspiciously of sage, traditionally a seasoning for poultry. The effect is more jarring than disagreeablea case of willful, needless experimentation. Otherwise, the meat is nicely aged and tender enough that your steak knife won’t get much of a workout. It’s nice to know that if you order it rare, it’ll arrive bloody. It’s also nice that the fries, far from being an afterthought, are good enough to hold their own with the beef: The thin strips of potato are soaked in a vivifying sugar-water bath, then fried to a light, golden crisp.
Given the strength of the steak and fries, I figured that the menu’s bright spot might be its sandwiches and pizzas, the sort of modest, low-maintenance food that bistros are often known for. But they get the same deluxe-o treatment as most everything else here, as if simplicity weren’t a virtue but a failure of imagination. The salmon sandwich is served open-faced on a single slice of rosemary focaccia, and it’s a relief, actually, that there’s not more of the bread: The rosemary is so pungent and woodsy that it overwhelms the mildness of the fish. It’s a shame, because the fillet itself is moist and flakes at the touch of a fork.
The burgercalled just that, the Burgerappealed to me with its simplicity, though what I initially took to be a sort of plain-spokenness in the title is probably only a wink-wink of ironic understatement. The meat is too tightly packed to be juicy, and the chewy, multigrain bun is a needless complication. The pizzas, too, are a come-on, with their promise of fresh herbs and vegetables and a crisp, wood-fired crust. What you get, though, isn’t anything special. At least the chains don’t make you believe that you’ll be eating anything other than a cheap, greasy pie. Arbor, by contrast, gives you basil and roma tomatoes and fresh mozzarella but still serves up a greasefest.
In the end, none of this particularly matters. What matters is the noise from the crowded streets outside, the laughter that flows as liberally as the wine at the table next to yours, and the smooth, comfortable furniture that lets you linger for hours in the relaxed, genial buzz of the patio after dark. California cuisine may have devolved into cliché long ago, but its popularity has never been higher, and that’s because there is no other vehicle like it for serving up just the right mix of trendiness and accessibility. Which makes it the ideal menu for a restaurant where eating well is not nearly as important as simply eating out.
Arbor Restaurant and Wine Bar, 2400 18th St. NW. (202) 667-1200. Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.