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Amid all the splashy restaurant openings of the past year, Blue 44, which opened in April 2011, barely made a blip on the otherwise ultra-attentive radar of the District’s largely young professional-driven foodie culture.
There’s a good reason for that: Unlike Elisir, Fiola, Graffiato, Little Serow, Rogue 24, and Toki Underground, among other hugely hyped and highly stylized new eateries, its location in leafy Chevy Chase D.C. is about as far removed from the city’s hip strips as you can get without technically straying into the suburbs.
Likewise, it caters to an entirely different demo. On a given evening, you’ll arrive to find tables in the front heavy on students in grades K through 6, albeit representing that well-nurtured, upper-Northwest variety of youngsters who will accept zucchini fries alongside their grilled cheese. Later, when you leave, the stragglers are largely graying Baby Boomers lingering over bottles of wine nearer the 12-seat bar in the back.
Ethnically speaking, well, there’s not much to speak about. After an initial visit, my dining companion rather accurately summed up the scene as “an ever whiter version of Café Deluxe for the masses of folks in Upper Caucasia.”
It’s probably not the vibe that proprietor Chris Nardelli first envisioned when scouring the city for a good location to open his own watering hole. “I originally wanted to do a sports bar,” says Nardelli, a former manager at Café Olé in nearby Tenleytown (no relation, he notes, to the Nardelli family that owns Capitol Hill’s historic Tune Inn). “After looking at the demographics here, that clearly wasn’t going to be the right fit for the neighborhood.”
Moving into a strip-mall-ish space formerly occupied by the down-market Tex-Mex eatery Señor Pepper, Nardelli has largely relegated his intended sporty motif to a trio of flat-screens in the bar area while putting a more upscale, sophisticated face out front, marked by dark wood paneling and classy framed black-and-whites adorning the walls. There’s also a kid’s menu prominently displayed in the window
This not-so-subtle shift in marketing strategy has attracted an entirely different brand of rowdiness. “Some days, before six o’clock, half the restaurant is three- to five-year-olds,” says Nardelli. “And it’s loud. They’re running around like crazy.”
Catering to the high-chair and crayon-coloring menu set might prove extremely unpopular in a more chic part of the city. But here among the manicured lawns and retirement complexes of upper-Upper Northwest, the ploy seems to have paid off.
On each of my three recent visits, Blue 44 has been bustling, if not entirely bursting, with patrons, especially during the waning daylight hours. Folks more accustomed to a downtown dining schedule, take note: If you’re not prompt, the early-bird crowd can rapidly deplete the popular Monday-night fried chicken special long before the typical peak 7 to 8 p.m. dining time.
Blue 44’s apparent popularity among families and seniors in a neighborhood overpopulated with those groups is not at all surprising. What’s puzzling is its newfound renown within the overall D.C. food scene.
In a recent poll, Washington City Paper readers bestowed Nardelli’s restaurant with the somewhat shocking title of “Best New Restaurant” for 2012, garnering more votes than the hugely popular Graffiato and Toki Underground, among other places.
Nardelli himself struggles to explain the somewhat unexpected honor. He notes that the restaurant did wage a rather modest Facebook campaign, which is all the more perplexing when you consider that his target demographic seems entirely out of sync with the social media giant’s own 18-to-29-year-old primary audience. Yet, technology can be a deceptively democratizing device. On my most recent visit, a middle-aged gentleman sitting next to me at the bar called for his tab and presented the bartender with a LivingSocial discount coupon.
Maybe the polling victory simply reflects the rarity of a place like Blue 44 within the city’s greater dining zeitgeist. In a year where the loyalties of the coveted young professional set may be split between a handful of trendy places, Blue 44 offers a single rallying point for the families and other outliers.
Or maybe the popularity has something to do with Blue 44’s populist menu, which Nardelli broadly defines as “something for everybody.”
Indeed, the listed fare pokes at a range of influences from French to Italian to New American, sprinkled with nods to Nardelli’s native Pittsburgh, at varying degrees of success.
The restaurant’s simple motto, “[a] place to eat and meet in the neighborhood,” rather vaguely—if somewhat accurately—describes what you can expect from a meal there.
The deviled eggs ($4) were unquestionably the blandest version I’ve eaten in the city. And there are many.
More enjoyable was the potentially shirt-stainingly juicy cheesesteak sandwich, served Pittsburgh-style, meaning that it’s topped with French fries and homemade coleslaw. “It’s basically a rip-off of Primanti Brothers,” my server explained, referring to the famous Steel City sandwich shop.
Another shout-out to Western Pennsylvania were four plump pierogies, stuffed with pleasingly peppery potato and served atop caramelized onions with a dollop of sour cream. They may be the most comforting, if not especially unique, thing on the menu. The doughy dumplings also arrive in a substantial puddle of butter, which laps the edges of the dish like ocean waves battering a dock en route to your table.
Chef James Turner, whose culinary resume includes prior stints at the upscale Harry Browne’s in Annapolis and the equally esteemed Persimmon in Bethesda, seems especially inclined toward dairy fat. Two other brothy dishes, the hard cider-sautéed mussels ($11) and saucy bistro chicken ($16), similarly smacked of heavy doses of butter.
The tender pan-roasted poultry, which Nardelli describes as one of Blue 44’s most popular dishes, comes bathed in a thick coq au vin-style broth that recalled the flavor of a mushroomy gravy in the defunct Chicken Tonight line of bottled skillet sauces from the early 1990s. It was so rich that my dining companion put down her fork and picked up her half of the cheese steak in search of something more balanced. “When the cheese steak is less rich than the chicken, there’s something wrong,” she opined.
On my next visit, I enjoyed the sweet and sticky Thai-style chicken wings ($8), despite their glaring lack of spice, much more than the crab cakes ($11), which are more like tiny crab balls and are so delicate they tend to disintegrate when you apply your fork.
I preferred the daily grilled cheese special ($10 for a half served alongside a bowl of the house’s carrot-colored tomato soup) when the gooey fontina on toasted marble rye came embedded with prosciutto, instead of the mealy out-of-season tomato it featured on another evening.
I also liked the grilled hanger steak ($19) better for its creamy potato gratin side than its funky green peppercorn sauce.
Maybe the most decadent and delightful dish on the entire menu is the Campfire Torte ($7), a stylized take on the traditional s’more with a thick ultra-rich block of chocolate cake seated upon toasted marshmallow cream and topped with a graham cracker that is artfully spackled with chocolate sauce and white cream.
It’s the sort of fancily presented comfort food that might even appeal to the über-foodies in Lower Northwest. But I’m betting the neighborhood kids dig it, too.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
Blue 44, 5507 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 362-2583
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