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The lone bartender at Bethesda’s Grapeseed doesn’t mix many cocktails. A martini or two a night, he says, and maybe a few cosmopolitans, but that’s about it. He pours even fewer beers. Yet he’s busy as can be. When its inventory is high, Grapeseed offers as many as 65 different wines by the glass, bottle, and 2-ounce “taste,” from serious, $18-a-glass Napa Valley cabernets to affordable riojas. So when he’s not fulfilling orders, the bartender can usually be seen wiping spots from just-cleaned stemware or placing uncorked bottles into a machine that helps keep oxidation at bay. The man is a flurry of activity. As he puts it to a couple of bar-side patrons: “This neighborhood was dying for us to open.”
If there’s any truth to what he says—and Grapeseed’s crowds suggest that there is—it stems from the fact that Montgomery County, with its restrictive liquor laws, has never been friendly ground for oenophiles. In Bethesda, Grapeseed seems like an aberration: a restaurant so proud of its daily-changing wine list (partially a result, says our bartender, of an unpredictable supply stream) that its menu morphs in accordance with the wine on hand. There’s even a small collection of wine-oriented reference books behind the bar.
Grapeseed’s appeal ebbs and flows according to traffic through its small, narrow space; it’s intimate on low-volume nights, loud and cramped when the line’s out the door. Still, dressed in shades of custard yellow and soft green, the dining room is a decent case study of how to make a tight space feel like an acre. Low-cut dividers compartmentalize the wall-side tables, creating the illusion of privacy, and whoever thought to install the clear, fully functional garage door in the front deserves a bottle of bubbly. Nothing blows the stuffiness out of a crowded room like an open door big enough to accommodate a Humvee.
Chef-owner Jeff Heineman, last seen at Arlington’s Rhodeside Grill, has crafted a menu listing dishes alongside the wines that “inspired” them. The notion of printing suggested pairings of wine and food on the menu is not an original one—I’ve been to airport sports bars that offer the same advice. It’s the “inspired” part that tickles like something fresh, and Heineman is clearly having fun with the concept. His pairings are smart regardless of their genesis. I don’t care if the idea for his garlicky, very Spanish shrimp saute really came to him while sipping oloroso: The dish is a winner, and it ought to be washed back with full-flavored sherry.
Even if you dismiss Heineman’s concept as schtick, it’s hard to write off the food that springs from it. His imagination sometimes backs him into corners—the capers and raisins in his warm cauliflower salad strike discordant notes—and even some of his better ideas are marred by lazy execution. But in the main, Grapeseed should meet the expectations of those who were supposedly dying for it to open.
The menu subdivides tapas and entrees; dishes meant to pair with white wines are listed separately from those deemed more suitable for reds. Admittedly, all of the unsolicited guidance grates with repeated visits—a waitress one night takes issue with our failing to follow the menu’s script. But many of the tapas wash away such quibbles. Petit sirah or no petit sirah, plump, flavorful veal cheeks, bedded on a small pile of wilted arugula, offer little resistance to a fork’s edge. Sweetbreads are similarly luscious; fried to a crackle, their earthiness nicely sets off capers and soft pearl onions.
Lighter tapas suggest that Heineman performs better with bold, rich flavors. The citrus sauce on his crispy grouper barely registers, leaving us wishing for something (a squirt of lemon, perhaps) to add some tingle. The cornmeal coating hangs too loosely on the flesh of fried oysters for them to offer any snap, crackle, or pop; and mussels are inexcusably dull, given that they’re roasted with chimichurri, a traditionally potent Argentine herb sauce. If the mussels perched atop his grilled bruschetta weren’t so perfect, plump, and proudly beige, I might start to think that Heineman loses his chefly touch around bivalves.
Heineman’s best entrees convey his industrious creativity. Grilled mahi-mahi couldn’t be simpler—just fish set on a pile of grill-striped vegetables; a few squiggles of balsamic reduction make it all meld. Heineman performs a more daring trick with roasted duck breast. Its lavender-honey-ginger sauce might taste too sweet if the corn cakes, flat and spongy as flapjacks, weren’t riding alongside, absorbing excess juice. Side dishes, in fact, seem to be this chef’s forte. Tart green tomatoes lend sauteed softshells a quirky, Southern flair, and crisp spaghetti squash croquettes nearly upstage flawless seared scallops. Asiago polenta fries, crunchy and oozy, don’t have any problem overshadowing leg-of-lamb slices. I like my meat bloody, but this lamb’s so red it’s almost carpaccio.
Some of Heineman’s ideas fail to become complete thoughts. His tomato risotto, though done to a turn, is too subtle to hold my attention as an entree. The green grapes that show up in a bracing white gazpacho don’t serve roasted pork tenderloin well; the meat, which is overcooked, begs to be paired with a darker, fruitier fruit. And, although crowning filet mignon with oxtail ragout is a gutsy call, the result’s a crowded party; each component deserves a plate of its own.
Grapeseed’s service can be harried—which might be an unsolvable problem. The place has been busy, and adding extra staff would only cause more congestion inside an already cramped space. But all those prolonged minutes spent dredging bread through tomato-infused olive oil fade quickly come dessert time. Chocolate terrine, pudding-soft and rich as you can imagine, inspires illicit thoughts. Another time, the perfect finale is a strawberry tart—photo-ready fruit nestled in vanilla cream over a layered phyllo shell, a dessert so right it’s disassembled and re-created as a napoleon a few nights later.
Heineman hits his mark often enough to leave you wishing that the restaurant were truly complete, that the misfires would become rarities rather than expected bumps in the nightly routine. Fulfilling ambitions is different from exhibiting potential. Grapeseed does the latter quite well, but it’s not yet a wine bar to die for. Given the restaurant’s clear devotion to fine food and wine, come dessert time, it’s hard not to wonder: Where’s the cheese plate?
Grapeseed American Bistro & Wine Bar, 4865 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, (301) 986-9592.
A reader “cursed to living in Tenleytown”—a “restaurant wasteland”—owing to some combination of owning a cat, having a boyfriend, and being in law school, fears that “if Mediterranean Deli didn’t exist, I might just fade away.” It’s basically a kabob-and-pita joint with good, garlicky puree dips—if you haven’t been to this particular storefront before, you’ve been to a close facsimile. Or at least that’s what I thought before ordering the restaurant’s simply seasoned monkfish, mild and firm-textured, nearly as delicious as lobster. “The food,” writes the reader, “is always better than you think it should be.”
Mediterranean Deli, 4629 41st St. NW, (202) 362-1006. —Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.