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In restaurants, the warehouse look serves a purpose greater than implying hipness: Quite simply, high-ceilinged rooms with lots of brick and cement make for great dining rooms because they breathe and are easy to maintain. If you ignore the giant squashes hanging from the ceiling and the green tree trunks that serve as decoration, you could argue that Thyme Square looks the way it does out of utility. But that wouldn’t be much fun, and most of the clientele seem to eat up the vibe of the place. As we watch two prep-cooks dice, squabble, and throw a pizza in rapid sequence, the woman next to me gives me a nudge: “It’s like performance art, isn’t it?”
She’s a little overwrought; we’re talking about Bethesda here. Like so many clothing stores, Thyme Square blends a boho setting into the suburban landscape. As a Yes song plays in the background, I comment that classic rock doesn’t seem appropriate for a restaurant like this, where antique doors are hung high up on the wall. “The music doesn’t fit the restaurant,” a friend agrees, “but it fits the crowd.”
Located in the spot once occupied by the Green City Cafe, Thyme Square serves healthy cuisine with, as the menu puts it, “as many organic ingredients as possible.” The kitchen’s insistence on health consciousness, as you might expect, can be annoying. As has been the case at many juice bars I’ve tried, the fruit drinks I order on separate occasions at Thyme Square end up tasting like celery. The pizzas, all of them inventive and cooked in the wood-burning stove, are too often dry and bland, falling victim to low-fat cheese and meatlessness. (If you’re in the mood for lox and bagels, however, the Delancy Street pizza is topped with cured salmon, herb cream cheese, capers, and red onions.) It took me several visits before I quit wishing that the sweet-potato spread the restaurant serves with its bread was actually butter. Now I crave the stuff.
But for the most part, Thyme Square’s cuisine, low in fat and free of nasty chemicals, simply tastes fresh. Before the appetizer arrives, I guess the Thai mussels will beg for butter, but I am proved wrong by the mixture of white wine, lemon grass, lime leaves, and shallots they’re steamed in. Those who think they’d like sushi but get the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it should try the not-a-California roll, a seaweed-wrapped loaf of sushi rice, cured salmon, avocado, and cucumber. The Mediterranean platter, served with a sliced baguette, is a gorgeous ensemble of dips: a nearly oil-free hummus, garlicky baba ghanoush, tabouli, and a smoky potato mixture called Greek skordalia. Of all Thyme Square’s salads—including the arugula, with its distinctive caramelized orange vinaigrette—the Caesar left me with the most fond memories. The giant, uncut leaves of romaine are sprinkled with roasted red peppers and come arranged inside a cone of baked parmesan.
Health-food restaurants are a drag when their cutesy creations fail to compensate for a glaring lack of flavor. Thyme Square avoids this fate because the menu is comprised mostly of time-tested dishes that seem modified to satisfy your palate as well as your physician. The robust black bean and chili sauce slopped over the veggie-filled enchiladas makes the absence of cheese a nonissue. Low-fat pad Thai might seem absurd until you taste Thyme’s version, with cabbage and a rich Asian dressing. I’m guessing the roasted chicken and shiitake noodle bowl (with awesome asparagus-laced broth) is something like the soup royals eat when they come down with the flu. And while the wild mushroom lasagna could hardly compete with its meat-filled cousins, I’d welcome its yellow and red tomato sauces onto a plate with my pasta anyday.
Given that Thyme Square is relatively new, I chalk up the occasional long wait and the accident when my server poured coconut broth on my shoe to growing pains. In fact, the only real crime Thyme Square commits (besides the classic rock) is making food that won’t clog your veins. And after devouring, among other things, Thyme’s lemon tart with blueberries and whipped cream, I’m not so sure serving healthy food is even a crime anymore.
Thyme Square, 4735 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda. (301) 657-9077.
Twice I’ve gone to the Collector on a Saturday for the brunch buffet, and twice I’ve been told that the restaurant only does brunch on Sundays. It’s beginning to sink in, but trying to find something on a lunch menu that will satisfy an omelet jones is pretty much futile—you have to switch gears entirely. The Collector’s steamed clams go down well any time, and not just because of the clams are fresh. The appetizer is served in a garlic and leek broth and comes with a mound of lumpy red potatoes. Mix it all together and it’s like a chowder.
Collector Restaurant & Art Gallery, 1505 19th St. NW. (202) 797-0160.—Brett Anderson
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