Buck’s Fishing and Camping
As the dog days of summer wind down, you may find yourself yearning for cool pine forests and crystal clear trout steams. While Buck’s Fishing and Camping won’t get you out of town, it might just transport you for a few hours to a spot that will help you forget the heat and humidity.
Inside, the restaurant’s design is reminiscent of a rustic lodge. Dark colors mix with bright exposed wood, punctuated by checkered tablecloths and a very long communal table that dominates the center of the space. Above, upside-down canoes and oversize images of fishing lures create a cozy atmosphere for riding out fierce summertime thunderstorms or escaping the tiny mosquitoes that plague the real outdoors. And with the subdued lighting from art-glass lighting fixtures and flickering table candles, you can almost imagine yourself inside some old-fashioned depression-era fish camp. Outside in front of the restaurant, a ping-pong table, which Buck’s shares with Comet pizza next door, offers restless young diners one last taste of summer camp.
When talented but intense chef Carole Greenwood left Buck’s last year to pursue other passions, some diners heaved an honest sigh of relief. Others worried the establishment they had, perhaps grudgingly, come to love would change with the departure of the chef they had come to understand and even appreciate. Now, owner James Alefantis has been careful to keep what was good about Buck’s — its quirkiness, focus on locally sourced ingrediants, well-prepared comfort food, and big fat desserts — and replaced many of the elements that have irritated diners since it first opened. The prices are lower, the service better, and Buck’s now takes reservations. The menu is still quite short, however, so if you arrive late on a very busy night there is the risk that some dishes might be gone.
To replace Greenwood, Alafantis brought on chef Vickie Reh, formerly a sous chef at Food Matters in Alexandria, Va. Unlike her predecessor, she seems unbothered by diners wanting their food the way they want it and gladly shares interesting information about how she approaches her dishes.
Buck’s simple menu changes regularly, reflecting seasonal availability. Certain basics stay put though, such as the steamed mussels as well as the iceberg wedge salad with Maytag blue cheese and applewood-smoked bacon. A longtime favorite for many, it’s a perfect starter for the steak. Signature dishes like the pork rillettes served with house-made bread and baby gherkins are also as good as ever.
Buck’s carries on Greenwood’s tradition of serving some of the best steaks in the city. Thick and well-marbled, they are grilled over a wood fire to crusty perfection with only a subtle smokiness to the meat, something that’s hard to do out in the real camping world. Lamb and various varieties of fish are also wood grilled and they too arrive perfectly seared outside, moist inside, with just a hint of wood to them.
Buck’s now offers a burger as a staple. And it’s a great burger. Spilling over the edges of the house-made Kaiser roll, the meat can be ordered with applewood-smoked bacon, three different cheeses, and a rich spicy mayonnaise that’s great for dipping the excellent hand-cut fries that come along for the ride. The only thing missing was some sautéed mushrooms, which would probably be available if you asked as they appear elsewhere on the menu.
The seasonal section of the menu, which includes both starters and main courses, offers greater variety and complexity than the staples. On a recent menu, sautéed scallops were paired with faintly lemony maitake mushrooms in perfect harmony. Likewise, a single large soft-shell crab was sautéed ideally and served over baby mizuna greens.
Small whole roasted chicken with orzo and mushrooms in a light, tart lemony sauce is delicious and offers a window into the chef’s talent. Satisfyingly salty, Reh roasts rounds of lemon under the chicken skin, which imparts a faint aroma and completes the flavor of the meat. Another reason the dish may be so good is where Reh starts preparing it: At a local farm, she handpicks the eggs that the farmer will hatch and raise to her specifications to produce the chicken she then serves at Buck’s. Clearly Reh shares her predecessor’s exacting standards.
Desserts have long been a highlight at Buck’s and the change in staff has not changed that. The fruit cobbler, whatever it is on any given day, is superb — served with homemade crème fraiche ice cream — while a thick slice of very dark chocolate cake is dense and deliciously rich.
Surprisingly, Buck’s still has not caught the cocktail craze that has swept D.C., though a full service bar still makes anything you might want and offers a reasonable variety of beers and wines.
One of the complaints about Buck’s in the past was the quality of service, which has been described as inconsistent and sometimes simply bad. But in several recent visits, there were no visible problems. Though the wait style is casual, in keeping with the restaurant’s overall theme (one hardly expects the same kind of service at a fishing lodge as you might find at the Oval Room), the staff is knowledgeable, suitably attentive and the timing of the meals on point. Whatever changes owner Alafantis have made to the management seem to be working.
With the fall camping season right around the corner, a trip to Buck’s would be a nice way to whet the appetite. For others who prefer the call of the wild satisfied by reading Jack London novels, Buck’s might be the perfect place for a taste of a camping and fishing adventure, minus the mosquitoes.
Buck’s Fishing and Camping is located at 5031 Connecticut Ave, NW.
Phone: (202) 364-0777
Dinner: Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday, from 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, from 5 to 10 p.m.
Starters: $3 to $13
Entrées: $14 to $39
Desserts: $8 to $11
Reservations are available. Dress is casual.
About the Author
Rachel G. Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.