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"New" Black's in Bethesda

  • j

Has anyone tried Black's since it has been revamped? Thanks.

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  1. Montgomery County has long been a relative wasteland for dining excellence. Despite the many ambitious attempts to rival D. C. few restaurants, if any, have approached U street, let alone K street. Or 21st and Penn or 30th and M. Addie's, Cesco, the Old Angler's Inn-for decades the County has fallen well short of the top tier destination restaurants of the District. For a half century or more lower County residents shrugged off this lack of distinction and drove down Reno road, Connecticut avenue, MacArthur Blvd. or 16th street to tastes and textures that the county had never known. With a County owned liquor and wine dispensary and an accepted standard of upscale shopping center restaurant ambience Bethesda, especially Bethesda, fell far short of what other Washingtonians had almost taken for granted.

    Tonight that forever changed.

    Jeff and Barbara Black won the Rammy award for D. C.'s best new restaurant, Black Salt, this past week. Tonight they opened a totally new and different-and upscale-Black's Bar and Kitchen on Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda.

    Black Salt, Washington's best new restaurant of '06, is a distant second.

    From the outside black block letters announce Black's framed with fiery red lighting with a backdrop of large panels of black glass. The outdoor patio which encircles an open stone pond leads to a dramatic entrance into a dining room worthy of Manhattan or Dallas. The James Beard award winning Stephen Pyles would feel at home here. To the left is a communal table for ten, an oyster bar, a ten or 12 seat sitdown bar which is framed behind by three seven by seven foot dark red glass panels and a number of tables flanked to the side against a far wall. To the right is the dining room: earthtoned patterns from light tan to dark brown , a far wall with a 100 foot long photographic panorama of Tuscany tinted with a brown hue, rust colored carpeting, subdued supper club recessed lighting and a glass enclosed, floor to ceiling, twenty foot long wine cellar center stage. Swanky. Southwestern. Uptown Dallas or Houston where Jeff Black is from.

    This could not be Montgomery County.

    Two hundred and sixty labels on the wine list with twenty two bottles by the glass. From Emilio Moro to Caymus Special Select to Marquis Phillips-and with very fair prices. Not only Montgomery County's best list but one of the best and most thoughtful in the D. C. area. A shock to find this type of intelligence and pricing north of Western avenue.

    The format is similar to Black Salt: oysters (Bay, boutique and premium), small plates, soups, salads and appetizers, "composed plates" and, in an interesting and unique twist, seven features from the wood grill with the option for seven different sauces.

    The first small plate we tried was a Great Dish: sesame fried oyster over Asian slaw with pickled ginger. Jeff Black has always excelled with his frying: I once justly claimed that his fried whole bellied clams were the equal of any in Essex. Other fried seafood of his I put on par with Al Porto's fritto misto in Milan or Al Covo's in Venice. Simply, the man is a genius with something so simple, so basic that restaurants in Calabash have built fortunes around foot high mounds of fried everything on paper plates. But this isn't Calabash and his sesame fried oyster is better-yes, BETTER-than anything I've had in Italy. Or Essex, Massachusetts. A one large bite Great Dish that anyone going there should order. Three dollars.

    Heirloom tomato gazpacho was another Great Dish: intensely tomatoey, flavorfully frothy with lumps of Maryland crab meat (specified) and celery sorbet this joyfully lasted and lingered well past the many spoonfuls I refused to share with my wife. She returned the favor with a cream of fresh squash soup that found her dredging bread on the rivulets left in the bowl.

    Other first courses included duck confit salad (frisee, Yukon gold potatoes, haricots verts, Banyuls vinegar), Tuna Carpaccio (egg, cornichons, celery, lemon aioli), tempura soft shell crab (melon relish, mustard oil, mint), heirloom tomato salad (Garrotxa cheese, cucumber viniagrette), shrimp and avocado salad (pea greens, ruby red grapefruit, citrus viniagrette) and Addie's mussels (tomato, garlic, shallots, lemon and parsley). Prices ranged from seven to fourteen dollars (Maryland lump crab cake with corn emulsion, Old Bay oil and corn shoots).

    Jeff Black has long been known for his outstanding seafood stews. At Black's Bar and Kitchen he has introduced a new one. In fact for the first time he has justly put his name on it: Black's seafood stew. Similar to the Portugeuse seafood stew of Kinkead's this is extremely flavorful with Cerignola olives, preserved lemon, fennel, pearl pasta and smoked paprika aioli. A rich, melded stew, his finest to date.
    Sauteed rockfish is served with "Patty pan squash, wild mushrooms, haricots verts, orzo and sauce Soubise." Ahi tuna is is served with black pepper and crusted with fennel atop fennel, cauliflower, olives, artichokes, tomato, sage polenta and lemon oil. Black's herb chicken is plated with sweet potato gratin, morel mushrooms, cipollinis, asparagus and summer truffles.

    Seared sea scallops is a third Great Dish: fresh, large sea scallops on top of garlic mashed potatoes, Swiss chard and a thyme-butter sauce which had at least a half dozen crayfish. Superb.

    From the wood grill: "Black pearl" organic salmon, Maryland Rockfish, Jamison Farms natural lamb loin, Berkshire pork double chop, spice crusted Moulard duck breast, Cedar River Farms eight ounce filet mignon and Pineland Farms twelve ounce ribeye. For each of these choices for sauce included: a cabernet demi glace, Bearnaise, wild mushroom fondue, citrus-green peppercorn sauce, preserved lemon and olive fond, chimichurri and lemon herb beurre blanc. Mix and match, interesting and unique juxtapositions of flavors and textures.

    Sides included outstanding and addictive fried onion strings.

    There is also dessert including a creme fraiche ice cream served with cherry sorbet and candied cherries along with a half dozen other choices.

    This is a serious restaurant. On its first night which was a "soft opening," home to at least two hundred and fifty covers when only fifty or so were expected. At ten o'clock the ninety seat dining room was still three quarters full, the bar area and flanking tables almost full as was the patio outdoor. I believe it is a fair statement that on its first night of operation-without advertising or promotion-this is already the most popular restaurant in Bethesda.

    I have a bias: I raved about Black Salt after two visits in its first two weeks and then found fifty people who trusted my opinion to share a blowout dinner there. The following year Washingtonian voted it D. C.'s best new restaurant and, again, this past week it won the Rammy, again as the best of the new.

    Black's Bar and Kitchen is better. Jeff Black will win his first James Beard award for this. It is serious and worth the drive from K street. Or Centreville, Alexandria or Bowie. We are indeed fortunate that he and Barbara have settled here. Not only Montgomery County but all of the D. C. area profits from this level of style and excellence.

    Thank you, Jeff.

    1. Joe

      Quite a review. Good to see it, and you. Janet and I will have to try those oysters soon.

      You suggested prices are fair, especially for the quality. In ballpark terms, what can one expect to leave behind as he walks out the door?

      1. Joe H.,

        Were you at the Chowhound dinner at Hollywood East last year?


        1 Reply
        1. re: jeb

          I organized a "chowhound" dinner (banquet) at HE last year. Is that the one you are referring to?

        2. John, this is their menu from their website:


          Most of the wine seems to have a 60 to 100% markup over retail (i.e. Emilio Moro was $53-it retails for about $30).

          No, I was not at the Hollywood East dinner. Thanks for asking.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Joe H

            Thanks. Seems very reasonable. I also like the menu's "no nonsense", almost New Orleans-like style.

          2. I don't think it's going to far to call Black's Bar and Kitchen the new Maestro.

            1. I made a reservation at Black's for my husband's birthday (August 26). We ate at the "old" Black's many times. It should be interesting. I'll report back.(I was at the HE dinner also and thought that Joe H was there too...)

              1. We ate at Black's saturday night. The food was good- very typical of the other Black's restaurants. The space is beautiful and comfortable. We ate outside - we were walk-ins a party of 4 (7:00) and only had to wait about 30 minutes for a table. Tables were available on the patio most of the night. However, the service was very mediocore. Our waitress had very few answers to our questions (what type of oysters, what are the specials, what does she reccomend) and even much less enthusiasm for her job. It colored the whole experience- I expect much better when I am spending $350.00 plus for a meal. Also I understand the small plates concept very well- however, I believe that $3.00 fo a single small poached shrimp in a teaspoon of sauce is plain silly to even put on the menu...and I was even sillier for buying it. I will go back becuase I liked the vibe and the food is good. But if that is on par with the top 3 restaurants in DC - then I have to high of expectations in what a restaurant can put out food and service wise.

                1. 2 things-

                  $350 for a meal at Black's? I seriously doubt that. That HAD TO be for 2 people- and even that sounds high. You must've been boozing it up (not that there's anything wrong with that!).

                  Not going too far comparing Black's to Maestro? C'mon. That's crazy. Black's is a fantastic restaurant, but it is what it is. AND, it's not nearly the price as Maestro. It's not even in the same ballpark as Maestro when it comes to quality and imagination (and price), but if you asked me "Would you rather live across the street from a Black's or a Maestro?", I'd say "Black's". Let's not get carried away, though and compare apples to oranges.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: food dude

                    Why would I lie about tha amount of money we spent? If you read my post you will see we were a party of 4- we had a medium price bottle of wine as well as 2 dozen oysters, several beers, 4 entrees and split two desserts - I was not comparing Blacks to Maestro but I have read this in other posts regarding this restaurant...just wanted to clarify...I would agree that it does not compare

                  2. Just had lunch at Blacks -- and I should have known better than to order the seafish stew. If the fish wasn't left over from yesterday, it might as well have been. Very disappointing. My friend on the other hand enjoyed her rockfish.

                    1. Cocoagirl- oops. Sorry about that. I missed the "party of 4" part of your post. That being said though, I don't think you should expect anything beyond "good" for $75 per person with drinks, oysters, dessert, entrees.

                      And to clarify as well, my comments about comparing Black's to Maestro were not directed at you, but rather the previous posters who made the comparison.

                      1. We hosted another couple for a big dinner at Black's in Bethesda two Saturdays ago. I'm very familiar with the previous rendition, as well as their outposts in Rockville, Garrett Park and Palisades.

                        To be repetitious, it is beautiful. I am generally not a fan of the wave of contemporary restaurant styling I've witnessed lately. But this is in no way sparse like I find many other "new" restaurants. And it maintains a nice warmth with indirect lighting and attractive wall coverings. The bar is ample and appealing.

                        Service was slow to start but improved. I ordered several bottles of pretty good wine, and he was proficient in opening, tasting, new glasses for new bottles, and which I wanted poured with which course. Runners were efficient and only one required a reprimand when after he was told he was serving the wrong dish to the wrong person he then suggested that perhaps we, the diners, were wrong. I didn't see him again the rest of the night.

                        The "small dishes", as much as I am sick of the whole concept, were better than the starters. I find it out of sync for some at the table to order and receive three small dishes, and then have nothing while others next have a proper first course instead. Anyway, my memory is failing now but I particularly remember the cod fritter and the carpacio.

                        The appetizers were only okay. The tempura soft shell was laden, and the mussels were overcooked.

                        Mains were hit and miss too. You must be aware that the menu is divided into real dishes or main courses, and on the other page a whole list of ala carte offering. If you order a main dish, like the scallops (which were very, very good) you will receive an enormous plate of food, including a pilaf mixture and a wonderful champagne/chardonnay sauce. If you order ala carte, you will receive a piece of bare meat in the middle of a white plate. Our steak and swordfish were pristine and delicious. In that instance only will you require one of the "side" offerings and/or the "sauce" offerings. To me, if you're as talented as Jeff Black, you shouldn't be asking patrons to build their own meals. Maybe he is just too sick of people asking him to serve his creations without the sides and the sauce. The seafood stew, which is so wonderful at Blacksalt, suffered here from overcooking and blandness in comparison.

                        One dessert and a couple of coffees were great. All in, I don't think it was more than $100/person which is quite reasonable.

                        Guests loved it and can't wait to go back. I think I'm just a pretty tough critic. I've enjoyed the food at Blacksalt more.