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Chef Carole Wagner Greenwood’s peregrinations have taken on a life of their own, beyond that of her food. Just when it seemed as if she couldn’t sit still, she has unpacked her storied baggage for the third time in a decade and begun to cook again. This time, her restaurant, Greenwood
heard of it?resides way uptown on Connecticut Avenue, where people go mainly to find books at Politics and Prose or to buy paint from Duron. Although in past lives the chef could count on K Street’s curb traffic and Cleveland Park’s curious passersby, she’s now landed herself in a dining outback. In purely logistical terms, Greenwood’s new location means that the food must be extraordinary, because there are easier ways to order mussels than finding your way to Forest Hills. You ask: Where’s Forest Hills? I answer: The mussels are like pudding.
Something in Greenwood’s peripatetic background suggests that she’s not the next Iacocca. In a perfect world, she would not need to manage her restaurant but rather could focus on the food and its theater, which clearly bring her joy. Seldom is a chef’s voluptuary streak on display so aggressively as it is from the moment you enter the restaurant’s carnally red interior and find your menu tucked inside a copy ofoh, this time it’s A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. Curvy, mouth-blown-glass lamps hang, like droplets, against the walls. They also dangle between the birch-wood poles of an interior pergola that, in a stroke of sublime pointlessness, divides the space this way and that.
A long table of salvaged wood unifies the room down the center. It has many chairs around it and usually some sort of food wrought as art on top. One night in winter, there were still lifes of jackfruit and Chinese green beans; in April, there were yellow pears and sugar effigies. The communal table warms up the place and reassures you that any efforts to rarefy the mood are all in good humor rather than supercilious. At any rate, I like this space better than Greenwood’s former dining room in Cleveland Park (sorry, Palena), the shape and surfaces of which made it about as quiet as Miss Crabtree’s English class at the end of a hot afternoon.
Speaking of grammar lessons, why are there quotation marks around the green salad on the menu? Is it a cliché? A joke? A lie? Never mind. The plate itself holds your standard-issue roughage with a delicate dressing on top. The salad is not nearly as surprising as the beets. In the past, I considered beets to be nature’s delinquents for their dirty flavor, but I’m willing to put them on probation in this case. In an appetizer of both red and gold varietieswith sun-dried tomato pesto and a small slab of mozzarellathey are far tastier than previously imaginable, sweet and succulent rather than soily and corklike. Greenwood is as fluent with background flavors as she is with those up front. The beets’ sugars seem to sit up against a scrim of licorice. And the starter calamari, though tougher than perfect, shares a certain woodsy haze with the grilled escarole.
The menu changes seasonallyand whenever Greenwood feels like itbut a couple of classics seem to survive those vicissitudes on each trip: I am a shameless star-schtupper for the $35 aged prime sirloin, which typically arrives with garlic mashed potatoes and greens. Once I rendered not one but two more meals out of this amazing bifteckcharred crisp on the outside and way juicy withinafter I got the leftovers home: steak and eggs for breakfast and a steak ‘n’ cheese for lunch. They were so good I never stopped to consider the value until now. And Greenwood usually keeps a red-wine risotto simmering in the back, which with each visit has showed her gift for manipulating light and shadow: The winter version had sweet squash and bitter dandelions; springtime brought smoky mushrooms and fava beans.
Next to the mustard-glazed rack of lamb, the chops of which I sucked on like lollipops nearly to the marrow, the rabbit was pink, pudgy, and devoid of fragrance. “Not like the rabbit back home,” noted my friend Maria, her home being the Amalfi Coast. But you can bet that Greenwood is serious about her seafood, which always surpasses token status: The grilled lobster came out like some miracle from the deep (are we sure this isn’t mermaid we’re eating?), tender and oh-so-salty, although the creamy risotto on the side had a fuellike cast about it. I wrote “sea bass…v. good” in my notes but cannot remember why. And I doubt that I will ever again have soft-shell crab crusted with pecans and undergirded by grits, arugula, and an English pea salad. Not to mention that while I was processing that combination, a sprig of mint exploded on my tooth, and I was glad to have lived at least that much longer.
For the price of that moment, I can forgive a 1995 Lalande de Pomerol served at a temperature well above that recommended in the wine encyclopedia that came holding my menu. I can also overlook the dispassionate service of my wintertime visits because, with the arrival of spring, the mood has turned pleasantly deadpan. Familiar, even. One night late, after three of us consumed two of the dessert samplersknown, officially or not, as “Happiness”a couple of waiters were ending the night with meals of their own from the kitchen. But a few were not: The front door swung open, and out of the vestibule came a Domino’s pizza-delivery man. He got a worried look on his face, as if he were thinking he’d been set up. “It’s OK,” said Greenwood, who was standing near the bar, motioning in the man with the pizza. “It’s for my staff.”
Greenwood, 5031 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 364-4444. Bradford McKee
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