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The Bluestone Cafe feels suspiciously imported, as if the whole restaurant were trailered in every morning before dawn, refreshed from a night spent marinating in countryside dew. Sound too precious to be true? Go there for dinner and see for yourself how well the rural quaintness holds up to pre-dinner parking hassles and standing-room-only crowds. The restaurant is small—only 13 tables and a few bar stools—and it looks like a farmhouse that’s been turned inside out; there are windows in the middle of the room, and the walls are a dusky yellow. The chairs are sturdy and sensible. A wall of glass in front frames the outside so it looks like a postcard-worthy streetscape. On my first visit, I note that the tables seem to be made of wood pried straight from a weather-beaten hay barn. As it turns out, they are.
Bluestone might be overly cute if its appeal weren’t so reliant on a compelling backstory, one the owners have seen fit to print up for customers to take home. It goes something like this: A group of Capitol Hill dogs facilitate a friendship among their four respective owners. The owners are neighborhood-cheerleader types who form a bond around their mutual affection for good food and their mutual displeasure with having to travel outside the ‘hood to get it. They get friends and neighbors to invest and bid on an Eastern Market space vacated by a post office. With the help of a local designer, the fledgling restaurateurs take an organic approach in transforming the storefront. The bar is made of wainscoting salvaged from the designer’s renovated home. Wood for the partition comes from a demolition at 11th Street and Constitution Avenue NE. The cement floor is original. In the back corner, it looks as if someone cut a hole in the wall and discovered a kitchen.
Bluestone, which opened in late summer, may be benefiting from a splash of beginner’s luck, but the owners are not your run-of-the-mill amateurs. Two of the four have a farm in the Shenandoah Valley, at which they grow produce especially for Bluestone. And Teresa Juliano, another of the partners, happens to be a talented chef.
Bluestone’s menu is a one-pager of simplistic-but-not-simple-minded dishes, many of which are as neatly composed as the cursivelike typeface that announces them. Salads are particularly stunning, especially those adorned with fall fruit, like the braised fennel with pears and the apple-sprinkled mixed greens. The prosciutto is sheer and salty, the cantaloupe juicy and firm, and together, with the melon sliced and fanned and the prosciutto pieces folded into cubist flowers, they look like elements of a centerpiece. The potato-and-leek soup is so thick I’m not sure “soup” is even the right word for it, but, regardless, it’s delicious. The only thing keeping Bluestone’s appetizers from perfection is the absence of bread that’s worthy of their presence. We’d finish that plate of roasted garlic, tomatillo salsa, and warm brie, but the accompanying crostini only go so far; oozy cheese and soft garlic cloves beg to be spread over something substantive and crusty, and the stuff in Bluestone’s bread baskets is neither.
Juliano doesn’t abandon her better instincts with her main courses; the best convey—and the worst at least strive for—the kind of back-to-earth sensibility that the restaurant is built on. The seafood scattered over linguine is sweet as can be (the menu calls the dish “cioppino,” which, unlike this version, is a straight stew), and robust pork chops are smartly set off by caramelized onions. And as far as crab cakes go, Bluestone’s are about as good as you can expect—maybe better, thanks to a side of corn timbale that coyly mimics the texture of the main attraction.
Still, many entrees slip by the kitchen’s quality control. A fat-addled “Delmonico” steak is totally chewy, and its mashed potatoes are soupy enough to pour off the plate. Chilean sea bass is decent, flaky and light in spite of too much butter, but the yellow rice it’s riding with is a slap in the face: Did we do something to deserve rice so dry that it’s hard? Lunchtime sandwiches only reaffirm what I’d characterize as a severe bread problem: The “onion roll” that the menu promises will hold a portabello burger turns out to be a sesame-seed bun, which all but turns to dough in my hands.
Bluestone’s servers can be a bit heavy of brow—which is understandable considering that they’ve got a minor phenomenon on their hands; you have to have a big party to get a reservation, and if you drop in on Friday, be ready to wait. By the time dessert comes and you’re sliding your fork through some Calvados-spiked creme anglais and right on through to the underlying apple tart, you’ll be wishing for whatever moved this restaurant’s owners to grow contagious. Chewy steak and doughy bread notwithstanding, Bluestone may be the best thing to hit its neighborhood since fire-sale prices on row houses. If Capitol Hill ever pulls a Cleveland Park and evolves into a restaurant destination, I’ll bet the farm that people will talk about how Bluestone made it happen.
Bluestone Cafe, 327 Seventh St. SE, (202) 547-9007.
Many of the people talking about Viareggio are talking about how disappointed they are. Some gripe about the pizza (“soggy crust,” “never pass muster in Philly”), but most bemoan that the new Italian deli doesn’t measure up to the gourmet shop that preceded it (“It’s no Market Day”). Mostly, they’re right: The shelves seem barely filled, and some of the prepared goods might just entice you to cook for yourself. No one, however, seems to have taken notice of the calzones. Hang around long enough and one will turn up, browned and swollen like a football, filled (if you’re lucky) with cheese and spicy, sliced-not-crumbled sausage, and finished with the kind of red sauce that pumps through the veins of the people who make it. Maybe this new neighbor isn’t so bad after all.
Viareggio Deli, 1727 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 332-9100.—Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.