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Aug 8, 2006 04:11 PM

"New" Black's in Bethesda

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.