Sturdy Debut


Redwood Should Entice Diners to Wilds of Bethesda, Md.

Longtime D.C. area restaurateurs Eli Hengst and Jared Rager recognize a good opportunity when they see one. With the opening of the new Bethesda Row development complex in the heart of trendy downtown Bethesda, Md., they saw a chance to bring their dining approach to their hometown. The result: Redwood, which is sure to build on the duo’s previous successes with Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar in Georgetown and Sonoma on Capitol Hill.

Getting in at the ground floor of the development, Hengst and Rager were able to create a truly striking space that resonates well with the restaurant’s name and concept of simplicity. As long as a redwood tree is tall, the restaurant’s open feel immediately strikes guests coming in. The ceilings are high and tables are set far apart. Large uncluttered areas and wide walkways reinforce the vast expanse. And running almost the entire length of the 180-foot frontage are huge glass windows that completely blur the boundary between inside and out.

Grizform Design Architects worked with a decidedly modern aesthetic that is almost Usonian in its design concept. Natural materials abound, from the rich, reclaimed redwood that frames the entrance and graces the ceilings and walls, to horizontally stacked black slate, pale stone and cork floors, marble countertops, bark wall, and raw steel fixtures. The palate is subdued with natural hues, and there are minimal decorative touches. The power of this design, and it is very powerful, is conveyed by its ef-fective combination of materials and use of light and space.

To complete their vision, Hengst and Rager selected Andrew Kitko as Redwood’s executive chef. Kitko, who had divided his professional career between California and New York, developed his skills working in varied culinary traditions, which gave him an appreciation for the adaptability of basic ingredients and the benefits of seasonal, local ingredients.

A Connecticut native, Kitko returns to his roots in developing what may be the area’s first self-proclaimed Mid-Atlantic region-themed menu, which was conceived in collaboration with Drew Trautmann, executive chef at Redwood’s sister restaurant, Sonoma. The menu, which changes regularly to reflect seasonal availability, emphasizes locally sourced ingredients prepared simply in wood-fueled grills and ovens.

The menu offers a nice balance of small plates, entrées and sides that makes it easy to put together almost any type of meal. Kitko and Trautmann have put together a sizable list of appetizers ranging from fairly standard but good mussels in garlic parsley butter, to a superb butternut squash tart that is actually one of the best things on the menu. The small, square tart crust is filled with chunks of butternut squash, blue cheese, chopped Swiss chard and pumpkin seed oil for a handsome, fall-inspired dish that is almost perfect in its pairing of ingredients.

The cream of mushroom, one of the daily soups, is also notable. With a strong mushroom flavor coming from three different wild varieties, it is rich and smooth but not dense or heavy, so that the chunks of chopped mushrooms fall to the bottom of the bowl. Another nice choice is the beet salad, with chopped beets and chunks of yogurt cheese in a light vinegary dressing topped with a crown of wild watercress that gives a slight bitter component to the dish.

There are a number of appealing entrées as well. Best perhaps among them are the scallops, which are exceptional. Large scallops are pan seared and served over a roasted pumpkin puree that is topped with caramelized apples and roasted pumpkin seeds, as well as an interesting pepita pesto. The accompanying sauce is almost butterscotch and though a surprise, it works brilliantly with the roasted pumpkin and apple. The halibut is another good choice. A thick filet is pan seared to a golden brown and served over a thick potato cake that’s been split and filled with champagne-braised cabbage. The fish is perfectly cooked and the pairing interesting, with the overall effect being mild but satisfying.

For a much stronger dish, the short rib chili is a fine choice, made of large chunks of off-the-bone beef and butternut squash topped with sour cream and served with homemade crackers. The main ingredients maintain their integrity and you can taste each separate spice with notes of cumin, turmeric and cinnamon dominating. It’s complex, subtle and just slightly spicy so there’s nothing to fear.

Not all the dishes, however, are equally appealing. The rotisserie chicken, served with just a bit of crushed herb sauce, is frankly bland. Many of the dishes are barely seasoned, allowing the flavors of the key ingredients to dominate. This approach produces many delicious dishes, but some who prefer more heavily spiced cuisine may find the dishes a bit too simple for their tastes.

The sides at Redwood deserve special mention. They are numerous and feature abundant seasonal vegetables. Mediterranean-inspired roasted cauliflower with lemon and pine nuts pairs nicely with the pork, as do the simply prepared sweet potatoes with apple-raisin butter. Kitko also offers a bacon, macaroni and cheese gratin that bring this stodgy little dish to new heights. Anson mills grits are coarse and very corny, while the fries are nicely done with a slight crunch and not excessively greasy. But the braised wild greens, cooked just beyond the wilt, are rather bland and may disappoint.

Redwood is still working on consistency in the preparation of its dishes. The crab dip — an interesting combination of crab, Swiss chard and mascarpone — arrived one evening with the chard stringy and intact, and the lemon and cream overpowering the flavor of the crab. On another evening, it was served hotter with a much more uniform texture, barely lemony, and much more crabby.

Redwood’s desserts though are definitely worth trying. A recent highlight was a milk chocolate fondue served with toasted homemade marshmallows on a tiny reed skewer with honey sweet graham crackers — S’mores without the smoke, bugs and burnt fingers. The chocolate-peanut butter mousse bar is bitingly bittersweet and covered by a deep ganache paired with a dollop of super rich peanut butter mousse. Laced with caramel sauce and accented with a small slab of crackly sweet peanut brittle, the dessert is tasty and satisfying. The butterscotch pudding, served with little chocolate pearls and a pistachio cookie, is buttery sweet and brings to mind the day after Halloween when you dig through the bag for just one more Werther’s candy. The dish is pretty as well, and fits perfectly into the restaurant’s design scheme.

For a more grownup indulgence, Hengst and Rager have brought their successful wine program to Redwood, putting Brian Cook at its helm. Redwood uses winekeeper cruvinets to preserve open wine bottles with nitrogen gas, allowing more types to be available by the glass. The beverage program also includes a number of local and regional drafts and bottled microbrews, as well as some interesting cocktails.

Open since July, Redwood’s service remains a bit inconsistent. Some of the front-of-the-house staff are highly experienced and strike the perfect balance between unobtrusiveness and attentiveness, the hallmark of superior wait staff. For others, it seems this must be their first restaurant job and they weren’t given proper training. (No, it is not OK to stack dirty dishes at the table.) Over the course of several visits, all the staff were agreeable and most were knowledgeable about the menus, but the coordination between the front and the kitchen had been uneven sometimes, resulting in poor timing in serving the dishes.

Nevertheless, there is much to be enjoyed at Redwood, from its beautiful space, appealing setting, comfortable atmosphere and some truly distinctive dishes. Although there are still a few kinks, Redwood is a welcome addition to the rapidly expanding Bethesda dining scene and in time should become a destination even for those who hate to cross the D.C. border into the wilds of Montgomery County.

Redwood 7121 Bethesda Lane, Bethesda, Md. (301) 656-5515

Breakfast: Mon. – Fri. from 7:30 – 10 a.m.

Brunch: Sat. and Sun. from 9 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.

Lunch: Mon. – Fri. from 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.

Dinner: Mon. – Wed. from 5 to 10 p.m. Thu. – Sat. from 5 – 10:30 p.m. Sun. from 5 – 9 p.m.

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About the Author

Rachel Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.