On a cold and dreary February day, when it seems like winter might go on forever, who hasn’t fantasized about escaping to the tropics? Last month, chefs and partners Jeff Mahin and Francis Brennan tapped into the fantasy, brilliantly exploiting the winter doldrums by opening a California beach-inspired restaurant, Summer House Santa Monica, in the Pike & Rose development complex on Rockville Pike in Maryland.
It is a delightful antidote to gray skies and winter blues. The restaurant is light and airy with high ceilings and wide-open spaces. Lots of white paint, pale and golden woods, wicker furniture, bright lights, hanging plants and living walls of potted herbs (that will be spectacular when the plants get bigger) create an atmosphere that will transport you, if only for a few hours, to an oasis free of muddy boots, road salt and Arctic blasts of cold air.
Summer House is the brainchild of two displaced California natives. After working in notable kitchens in the United States and oversees, both Mahin and Brennan ended up in Chicago at L20, an acclaimed seafood restaurant of the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) restaurant conglomerate. Discovering shared interests, the two first teamed up to open an artisanal donut shop, Do-Rite Donuts, in Chicago’s theater district.
While building the donut business, the two partners realized there was no restaurant in Chicago delivering the kind of food they had come to love as children growing up on the Pacific Coast, so they decided to develop one of their own. They opened the first Summer House in Chicago late last fall. It’s fitting that Summer House grew up in the Windy City, where residents really do have a reason to complain about the frigid weather.
The partners have built a refreshing, eclectic menu for Summer House, with slight variations between the two locations to accommodate regional availability of ingredients and local tastes. The menu, packed with California favorites, ranges from simply prepared starters, salads, sandwiches and sushi, to seasonally inspired entrées of meats, fish and pastas — with many of the dishes prepared on a wood-fire grill.
Two types of fish tacos, the wood-grilled mahi mahi and spice-rubbed seared tuna (or a land-based version of ancho-marinated Amish chicken), are served deconstructed with savory black beans, cumin-scented rice, guacamole, charred tomato, tomatillo salsas and fresh soft corn tortillas. Other coastal standouts include three kinds of sushi; a yellowtail “beach bum” ceviche; the ahi tuna tostadas; and fried calamari in a thin spicy tempura crust with spicy mayo and lime.
One of the seafood dishes developed specifically for the East Coast menu features local rockfish. Grilled and served in a ginger dashi broth over a bed of tatsoi greens, buckwheat and shitake mushrooms, it’s a light dish with subtle but complex flavors. The wood-grilled Atlantic salmon, served with melted fennel, arugula pesto and espelette pepper, is classic California at its best.
Given the West Coast concept, it’s not surprising that Summer House does excellent salads. Most are light but heavy on the greens. The super greens salad is a simple combination of baby kale, mizuna, shaved celery, parmesan cheese and watercress, tossed with roasted garlic breadcrumbs and parmesan vinaigrette. For the shaved vegetable salad, small bits of romaine and iceberg lettuce are mixed with shaved seasonal vegetables, red quinoa, ricotta salata and sunflower seeds, all very lightly dressed in a light Italian vinaigrette.
The locally sourced produce concept, a natural for restaurants in California but a bit more difficult to adhere to in this area during the winter months, is central to Summer House’s menu. It currently sources its greens from TrueFarms in Haymarket, Va., which uses an indoor hydroponic growing system to produce greens throughout the year. In a bid for absolute freshness, Summer House’s living greens salad is made with greens that are cut to order from the living plants. Barely kissed with olive oil and fresh-squeezed lemon juice, the salad is topped off with crunchy-salty toasted pumpkin seeds. The salad is perfect in its simplicity (but may be less appealing to diners who like more than a hint of dressing).
In addition to the salads, Summer House offers a number of other meatless choices. An unusual roasted cauliflower features jalapeno pesto, parmesan cheese, candied lemon and breadcrumbs. Roasted baby beets are equally inventive, paired with a tangy grapefruit aioli, pomelo citrus fruit, avocado slices and gorgonzola crumbles. On the sweeter side, a thick slice of butternut squash is caramelized with sherry-maple brown butter and topped with roasted pecans. Caramelized Brussels sprouts with pancetta and modena vinegar are tasty but a bit watery on occasion.
One of our favorite dishes has been the vegetarian option from the “Things We Love” section of the menu. It’s a Thai-like vegan green curry made with very thinly sliced seasonal vegetables and served with quinoa and forbidden black rice. An unusual salad of fresh greens, mint and cilantro enhances the Asian character of the dish. The entrée pairs particularly well with the fresh burrata starter, which is served with slow-cooked tomato jam, olive oil, arugula and house-made bread.
Mahin and Brennan’s donut-making days have come in handy on the sweet side of things. Though brief, the dessert menu runs the gamut from a heavy trifecta fudge cake to fresh fruit and yogurt. A sophisticated coconut panna cotta, not too sweet but very rich, is served with diced tropical fruits, chili lime granita and mint. Perhaps the most interesting choice is the gluten-free short bread served with Meyer lemon curd, orange marmalade and toasted almond ice cream. It’s a delightful taste of warmer climes.
Summer House boasts a long bar, behind which a creative beverage program churns out house cocktails, a collection of craft beers and a California-heavy wine list with a nice group available by the glass. The “chef-crafted” cocktails are interesting and quite simple, ranging from the bracingly strong Monte Cali —bourbon, Benedictine and angostura bitters — to the sweet and easy Jalisco Smash made of blanco tequila, lime, cassis and mint.
The partners tapped chef Martin Ticar, formerly at Mon Ami Gabi in Bethesda and Reston (both LEYE restaurants), to run the kitchen on a day-by-day basis. Under his experienced guidance, the high-production kitchen, which opens out to the dining room, is an exercise in efficiency. It turns out dishes sometimes so quickly that it can be a challenge to keep up, especially if you are having a multi-stage meal. Otherwise, there are remarkably few issues that you’d expect to see at newly opened restaurants.
Since its opening, Summer House has been busy. Even on off-peak nights, there have been sizable crowds. One byproduct of this success has been that popular menu items are occasionally unavailable. Despite the crowds (the restaurant seats 200 inside), the noise level has been surprisingly tolerable, even on the busiest evenings, thanks in part to the high ceilings and divisions between sections — there is a more formal dining room on one side, and a casual bar and high-top tables on the other.
Summer House is a welcome addition to Pike & Rose. Like other restaurants in the complex, it is large, high volume and part of a large corporate group, but it is distinct and done well. The food is interesting, appealing and well executed. The service is good and the atmosphere uplifting. This time of year, the respite it offers is a warm, welcome break from reality.
Pike & Rose
11825 Grand Park Ave.,
North Bethesda, Md.
Dinner: Mon.-Fri. and Sun., 5-10 p.m.; Sat., 5-11 p.m.
Starters: $7.95 to $16.95
Entrées: $16.95 to $35.95
Desserts: $7.95 to $8.95
Rachel G. Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.