Blue Ridge’s Simple, Sustainable Focus Produces Hits, Misses
Glover Park’s renaissance continues with the June opening of Blue Ridge, the newest collaboration of local restaurateurs Eli Hengst and Jared Rager. The team — responsible for several highly successful restaurants, including Mendocino Grille, Sonoma and the recently opened Redwood in Bethesda, Md. — sought a location with a strong neighborhood base to which they could bring the twin concepts of simplicity and ingredient-focused cuisine that have worked so well for them in the past.
They found the perfect spot in the location of the old Busara, a long-standing Thai favorite in the area that closed last year. Bringing in Washington’s CORE design firm to renovate, they turned to the farming legacy of the Blue Ridge mountain region for inspiration to transform the space. To mirror the farm-to-table concept of the restaurant, they incorporated elements of an early 20th-century Shaker farmhouse — dark wood floors and wainscoting, wide plate rails and warm off-white walls. Decorations are spare, with a few hung quilts and mirrors framed by pressed tin. The recessed blue lighting on the ceiling left over from Busara is distinctly not Shaker-inspired but in its contrast is rather appealing. Tables are set wide apart in the main dining room, giving a sense of space and calm that contrasts with the bar room. Dominated by a wonderful 110-year-old oak bar reclaimed in Pennsylvania, the bar is already a popular haunt and can be quite crowded even on slow evenings.
The garden spot, however, is the prize and well worth waiting for if you have time. With a little Zen pond and garden to one side, it is Washington outside dining at its best. Outdoor heating will extend the utility of this space to three seasons at least.
To put together a menu that reflects their concept of seasonal, sustainable, locally sourced ingredients from the mid-Atlantic, Hengst and Rager brought in the award-winning Barton Seaver as executive chef. Seaver re-enters the Washington restaurant scene in his first post since leaving Hook and Tackle Box last year. A Washington native, he brings a continuing passion for sustainability and a full understanding of the region’s available resources, ensuring that the ingredients used at Blue Ridge are seasonal and sourced from the mid-Atlantic.
As you peruse the menu, try the crunchy root vegetable chips served with charred onion dip and bacon-roasted almonds, which go nicely with one of the craft cocktails (be sure to include a super cosmopolitan), or one of the creative house punches or a glass of wine from the list developed by Brian Cook to reflect Thomas Jefferson’s early forays into American viniculture. The list features several nice choices from east of the Blue Ridges, including Black Ankle passeggiata (syrah), Albermarle rosé and Church Creek chardonnay.
Even though he has limited his palate primarily to locally sourced ingredients, Seaver has built an impressively varied menu. A number of small plates make a nice meal and include some of the tastier dishes. The deviled eggs hold true to the restaurant’s mission. With just a tracing of olive and herb oil, they are simple, straightforward and delicious. The grilled asparagus served with a thick sauce of whole grain mustard is also excellent. The crispy grit cakes — coarse, grained grits breaded and fried until crisp — are served with a mushroom gravy that is more sautéed mushrooms than gravy. The dish is mild but the texture is very satisfying. Fried green tomatoes are also well prepared — crispy on the outside, firm inside. The dish is however fairly salty (as is the asparagus).
Other good choices include the sweet potato fritters, crispy and oozing with melted cheese, as well as the charcuterie, developed with a distinctly American twist, featuring barbecued ham, Kentucky prosciutto, bacon, chicken liver mousse and smoked ham cracklings, most of which are house prepared. The meats pair nicely with the selection of cheeses, which includes artisan varieties such as Carr cocoa cardona and Thomasville tome. Not all of the choices though are equally appealing. The path valley radishes — perfect little pale pink and white bulbs — are served with a cultured butter that, though good in its own right, seems almost an afterthought on the dish.
Among the entrées there are also hits and misses. The grilled fish, trout and the fish of the day (only sustainable species here) have all been consistently well prepared, as has the locally sourced, grass-fed steak of the day. The burger too is good, harkening back to Seaver’s time at Café Saint-Ex (but be sure to order it medium rare as it is grass-fed beef and seems to lose flavor from overcooking more quickly).
The chicken potpie is prepared in individual cast iron skillets with a leg standing at attention. Topped with small rosemary potato biscuits, the pie’s filling consists of carrots, root vegetables and chicken chunks bound in a thick sauce — but overall the effect is rather bland. The grilled pork chop, while lean and meaty, is so mild that it is overpowered by the collard greens, which are well cooked but again rather blander than one might expect in this type of dish. In an attempt to preserve simplicity, Blue Ridge may have gone too far in some cases, eliminating flavorings that would add dimensions of interest to some of the dishes. That said, there is also a tendency for some of the dishes to be on the salty side, which will appeal to some but may be too much for others.
Desserts are limited to a few house-made pies, ice creams and floats of boutique root beer and cream soda. On a recent visit the blueberry pie, more cobbler than pie-like, was somewhat disappointing, with a rather sparse and dry filling. On another visit though, the strawberry-rhubarb was some of the best around.
A general lack of consistency, evidenced in the service that varies from night to night and from table to table, may well be a reflection of the newness of Blue Ridge, which is still ironing out the kinks in its operations. (The anticipated second floor, which will have a lovely view of the garden, has yet to open.)
Blue Ridge faces an interesting challenge. There are several competitors in Glover Park within a few short blocks. To the north is Kitchen 2404, which opened in January and focuses on Southern cuisine, overlapping with Blue Ridge’s menu concept. Town Hall, a well-established business to the south, offers new American cuisine, which although more complex in approach, also overlaps slightly with Blue Ridge. To distinguish itself, Blue Ridge will have to establish a defined niche. The elements are all there — excellent chef, interesting and appealing concept, flexible menu, nice space and affordable price point. Blue Ridge is poised to become a true neighborhood restaurant, the kind for a leisurely Sunday dinner with family or friends to prepare for the week ahead. Time will tell whether it achieves its promise.
About the Author
Rachel G. Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.