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Unlike restaurants inside cities, most of which define themselves through some reflection of their surroundings, suburban restaurants are pure escapes. Just step inside any classically over-adorned chain: The dining room is meant to be an antidote to the parking lot, the mall, the road rage, and the neighboring superstore. The window table is often not the most coveted.
Jeff and Barbara Black have become masters at capitalizing on this sort of chaotic landscape. With Addie’s, their flagship restaurant in Rockville, the restaurateurs execute a crafty bait-and-switch: Inside a run-down-looking cottage across Rockville Pike from the White Flint Mall, Addie’s seems to promise a rural respite from its traffic-choked neighborhood. Instead, the restaurant takes its patrons all the way back to the city with its downtown crowds and its innovative new American cuisine.
At Black’s Bar and Kitchen, the couple’s latest endeavor, they are in some ways up to their same old illusory tricks. I half-expect to find an old couple playing dominoes and swatting flies as I approach the place, which is located in the heart of Bethesda. From the outside, Black’s has the look of a Bayou shack that’s been sitting in the humidity too long, a feeling not foreign to the people waiting on the restaurant’s front porch on busy Friday nights.
Black’s interior looks like a Hemingway dive that’s been disinfected with Martha Stewart’s perfume. Which is to say that the place has got some charm—I like the way the stuffed sea trophies seem to swim fearlessly into the pulley-driven ceiling fans, and if you can’t close a romantic deal sitting in a just-for-two booth, you’re not telling the right lies. But the design is a touch too eager to feel truly homespun (I’m curious to hear an explanation for the chicken coup near the bathroom), and if you go on a weekend night, don’t expect to be treated like an old friend. Waiting 45 minutes for a table that’s set and ready when we walk in isn’t even the bad part. It’s the comedy of snubs that follow: the waiter who, after taking 20 minutes to acknowledge our presence, brings enough water to fill only one of our glasses; getting served our first morsel of food at 9:45 when our reservation was for 8; looking at our bill to notice that the “free” round of drinks the hostess promised as a peace offering cost $9.
To judge from what the kitchen churns out, its staffers are operating in a different hemisphere from their front-of-the-house counterparts. The cuisine is mostly seafood prepared with a Southern twang, and the menu details each dish right down to its alleged home base: Plantain-rolled shrimp from Siesta Key, Fla. Vermilion Bay Seafood stew. Pan-seared halibut straight out of Bayou La Batra, Ala.
But the most pertinent piece of information regarding the food is that it’s quite good. I’ve never been to Breaux Bridge, La., so I can’t speak to the authenticity of Black’s particular rendition of crawfish etouffee. But I do know that I have to ask for more bread to sop up every bit of the dish’s dark, Cajun-spiced sauce. The ingredients in a lot of Gulf Coast cooking tend to taste tortured by the company they’re forced to keep, but Black’s kitchen manages to stop just short of going one flavor too many—the dishes never deliver the cliches that I expect. The sweet-corn soup isn’t reduced to a vehicle for harsh pepper heat; it’s smooth and clean, with a restrained spike of spice. The crab cakes, cloaked in a subtle mustard sauce and paired with Swiss chard, taste like something this kitchen invented. I thought I was bored with grilled salmon until I tried it here, with its gentle corn sauce and garden-fresh tomato relish.
The kitchen’s not immune to bouts of poor judgment. Campeche, a kind of Mexican seafood salad, is served in a sundae dish that’s so tall and slender you can hardly get your fork into it, much less the accompanying tortilla chips; and the barbecued duck enchilada should be forced into early retirement. But on the whole, the culinary pleasures are kept refreshingly simple, especially in the bar, where a spread of iced, glistening oysters tempts even nonbelievers to closely consider the bivalve. There are four different varieties on the menu, and all are briny and luscious, worthy of eating without the horseradish and cocktail sauce that come on the side.
The bar’s environment is actually preferable to the dining room’s. The service can be as raw as the delicacies on display, but that can be a nice trait in a barkeep. With all the swilling and slurping going on, the place might even feel authentically coastal if the staff didn’t keep reminding us that it’s not. When we ask our waiter to point out what’s what on a variety plate of oysters, he does so with a disclaimer: “I’m guessing.”
Black’s Bar and Kitchen, 7750 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, (301) 652-6278.
The atmosphere at Shemali’s is willfully downscale; all the neon in Manhattan couldn’t glamorize the deli/grocer’s disheveled space in the corner of a Giant Food parking lot. The joint’s worth seeking out, though. Skip the burgers and fries and go for the Middle Eastern specialties: flaky, honey-sweet baklava; soujouk, a lemon-scented dish of sausage and pine nuts; brined cucumbers that could rival respectable kosher dills. A reader who works nearby recommends eating fast if you decide to dine at the small counter. “They tend to glare at you if you linger too long,” he says.
Shemali’s, 3306 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 686-7070. —Brett Anderson
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