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The Broad Street Grill is a bar-with-a-menu, not to be confused with a bar-with-food, or, far worse, a bar-that-feeds-inebriates. Members of the last strain are the least savory of the bunch, culinary hellholes that will find you a patty of something if you’re drunk enough to eat it. Bars-with-food are painfully ubiquitous, so, naturally, they’ve made a bigger mark. Anyone who claims to loathe “Cajun” fries has never tried them, and if a foreigner were to conduct a study of all the nations’ menus, I suspect he might deduce that the chicken Caesar is America’s national dish.
The Broad Street Grill is something else, and not just because its wait staff says so. Many bar-with-food employees have a penchant for tableside hyperbole, recommending specific cheeses for burgers or dressings for salads as though words like “Swiss” and “Russian” carried proof of culinary achievement. But when I say Broad Street has a menu, I mean it. The document contains both a soufflé and a risotto of the day, seared-duck-breast salad, sweetbreads, and a twist on crab cakes that includes pear chutney and leek raita. The only customers the staff has to hard-sell are the ones who come in with low expectations. One night, the bartender draws me a beer from the tap, his head full of the choices I face, and mutters, “Can’t get enough of that foie gras.”
Broad Street’s chef is Gillian Clark, the opening chef at Alexandria’s Evening Star Cafe and an alumna of the kitchens at Cashion’s and the Morrison-Clark Inn. Whereas Clark’s cooking at Evening Star was proudly Southern, she’s brought a more modern, multicultural cuisine to Broad Street’s tavern setting. The menu even urges customers to rethink how they’d normally proceed, pointing out that Clark’s “small plates,” a list of appetizers and tapaslike portions of entree-type dishes, can do the job on big appetites when correctly assembled.
The food can fill you with excitement, too, if the planets are aligned. One feast I share at the bar oscillates between boss and blah, as if the kitchen’s trying to make a point by contrasting thrills with duds. A single shiitake-crusted lamb chop is reduced to a clean bone in no time flat; an onion-and-Gorgonzola turnover is so squishy that I have a hard time believing the pastry ever had any flake to it. The baked goat cheese atop the spinach salad is creamy and ripe; the fried squid lacks both crunch and a sauce worthy of dipping. Sweetbreads are rich and striking, offset by shortbread croutons and lemony frisée; the clumpy cheddar risotto is so salty I fear that my lips will chap if I eat too much.
Both Broad Street’s on-the-ball host and mind-reading bartender (“I just figured you wanted another”) could work anywhere, but its waiters range from overtly enthused to out-of-itan institutional tic that grates more if, like me, one night you happen to get tag-teamed by one of each.
At least the inconsistent is consistent with the cuisine. The night we opt to go for the more traditional appetizer-entree-dessert order begins with a house consommé described on the menu as “rich chicken broth with sticky rice and broiled shrimp.” In reality, it’s a bowl of warm, colored water that holds rice grains and a single shrimp that bears none of the brown-to-black marks of broiling. The carrot-sage soup is much better, pitch-perfect with just a whisper of spice, and so are the entrees, although they take forever to arrive. The braised veal is nice, tender and runny with a faintly sweet, rice-wine plum sauce, although I’d ask to substitute something for the plain white rice that comes alongside; the pan-roasted monkfish is a better dish if only for its accompanying root vegetable purée. Both main courses are good enough that if I’d never been introduced to the yellow squash and potato “Napoleon” (an entree that’s really scalloped potatoes run amok) or the inappropriately hard, icing-like topping on the chocolate mousse pie, I might consider booking a table tonight.
Broad Street gets plenty of patrons who come in just to drink (live bands often play on Friday and Saturday nights), and there’s certainly plenty of room for them at the bar, which seems to go on a few yards longer than most. But still, the front of the house is all dining room, and the menu is too interesting to dismiss. Blended together, it’s a neighborhood tavern circa right nowmeaning just-built, not modern in the neon, restaurant-of-the-minute sense of the word. Despite its being open for almost half a year, all the pale Sheetrock and prefab woodwork give the feeling that the dust’s just settled. If the Broad Street survives (the weekend crowds I saw suggest that it will), some minor renovations and the patina of age could make the place feel timeless. By then, with any luck, the food will have reached maturity as well.
Broad Street Grill, 132 W. Broad St., Falls Church, (703) 533-1303.
MCCXXIII, with its copper-lined dance floor, I’m-bigger-than-you doormen, and food priced as if the bull market will never end, probably deserves its own genre name. Several readers have proposed as much, “rip-off” being one of the more popular suggestions. I’ll admit to digging the two-tiered space, and unlike many readers, I even get some friendly service to accompany decent food. The pillowy agnolotti, plumped with butternut squash, are decadently rich, although they’re going for way over market valueis there a pasta crisis I don’t know about? I’d skip the food and come for the weirdnessthe guy bragging that he’s calling Asia on his cellular, an interior fashioned to resemble a coliseum made of cloth, a bathroom replete with a staff person who’s a jerk, and munchies that are free.
MCCXXIII, 1223 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 822-1800.