Sometimes it’s nice to get away from the chaos of the city and go where the streets are a little cleaner, the air a little fresher, and the temperature might even be a few degrees cooler. For this food adventure we traveled on the Metro Red Line into the great northwest; the land of the well-to-do.
This corridor of Montgomery County MD and northwest DC contains some of the most affluent communities in the country. The area has a rich history as the site of an ancient Native American trail that later developed into a toll road for farmers to bring their goods into Georgetown. The Georgetown and Tennallytown Railway extended the electric streetcar into Bethesda in 1890 along the route that is now Wisconsin Avenue. Streetcars connected these Maryland suburbs to the city until 1935 when they were replaced by buses. Finally, the Bethesda Metro station opened in 1984.
Just a few miles from the DC line on Wisconsin Ave, the National Institutes of Health and the National Naval Medical Center have been based in Bethesda since the 1940’s, filling the area with science and technology types. In twenty-first century Bethesda, the west side of town has been transformed into Bethesda Row. The centerpiece of this development, Bethesda Lane, opened in 2008 with a pedestrian-only street of restaurants, retail shops and luxury apartments. Last year a Washington Post article described the Aspenization of Bethesda and proposed that it “might be one of the most upscale suburban downtowns in the United States.” Even Fortune Magazine has considered that Bethesda could be the next Aspen due to its “quiet wealth.”
Bethesda is strewn with outdoor seating, particularly in the few blocks surrounding Bethesda Row, so there are many choices. About four blocks from the metro, Mon Ami Gabi occupies a nice corner spot on Woodmont with sidewalk café tables on each side. I know – it’s a chain. But it’s a good chain with only five locations. Chef Gabino Sotelino’s first Mon Ami Gabi in Las Vegas has become one of the most successful restaurants in the country. Sure, I would rather be in Vegas drinking wine while people watching on the strip, but Bethesda isn’t too shabby either. It is the new Aspen, after all. Outside is the place to be on a nice day, but the inside bar is also pleasant with lots of light and fresh air coming in through the open windows, brightening the classic French bistro.
They serve brunch on weekends but the menu also includes plenty of the expected bistro plates for those of us that prefer non-breakfast items. We stuck with the classics and had the Housemade Country Pate, appropriately served with grainy mustard, cornichons, caper berries and toasted baguette. We also couldn’t resist the Wild Escargots De Bourgogne. The six plump snails were piping hot and smothered in garlic herb butter that we mopped up with pieces of fresh baguette. We accompanied the treats with the Mon Ami Gabi Chardonnay by Grand Ardeche-Mason Louis Latour, a medium-bodied, lightly oaked white burgundy. This worked well with both the light meat pate and the rich butteriness of the snails.
Friendship Heights is the first Red Line stop in DC. This Chevy Chase neighborhood straddles the MD/DC border with Western Avenue as the dividing line. Development here boomed in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Mostly known for it’s shopping district, there is something for everyone from discount stores like TJ Maxx and DSW to the high end department stores Neiman Marcus and Saks. The stretch of Wisconsin between Western Ave and Somerset Terrace has earned the nickname “Rodeo Drive of DC” due to the many luxury boutiques like Louis Vuitton, Tiffany’s, and Jimmy Choo.
For an upscale area, the restaurant scene has sadly lagged behind. Friendship Heights has suffered from an abundance of chain restaurants. The most notable exception is star chef Brian Voltaggio’s Range, which opened in 2013. You can actually get to Range without stepping outside by directly entering Chevy Chase Pavilion from the Metro Station.
Range is inside on the second floor of the Pavilion in the former Stein Mart space. It is a huge restaurant with seven open kitchens, each dedicated to a different aspect of the menu. The interior is bright, white, and modern. I hear that it’s difficult to get a table reservation, but we had no problem finding two seats at the large bar since we were there early – they open at 11:30 a.m. every day.
This can be a pricey spot for a full meal, but many of the small plates and pizzas are reasonably priced. We enjoyed the Goat Cheese Ravioli – three seamless, spherical balls of goat cheese-filled ravioli presented on top of a pork and beef ragu. The buffalo mozzarella, tomato and basil pizza baked in the wood fired oven was also a good choice. One of the things we liked best about Range was the extensive wine list. There is a binder full of bottles with many affordable options. Since we were not up for a full bottle this time, we each had a glass of the Finco Decero Malbec from Mendoza. This is a nicely balanced red with rich dark red fruit notes. Over a year of aging in new and used French oak barrels increases its complexity and smooths out the tannins. It’s nice to see it offered here by the glass.
If you entered directly from the Metro, then you missed seeing Friendship Heights. It really is quite pretty out there, so it would be worth taking a walk outside.
Van Ness – UDC
Back on the Metro, we bypassed Tenleytown and went to Van Ness – UDC. Here the Redline leaves Wisconsin Ave and veers east to follow Connecticut Avenue. The Van Ness Metro station is named for Van Ness Street and the nearby Van Ness campus of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). The surrounding neighborhood is Forest Hills which, like many neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, is going through its own revitalization. The Van Ness Vision Committee has a plan to fill their stretch of Connecticut Ave with “outdoor cafes, markets, restaurants, activities, events & the arts”.
Acacia Bistro and Wine Bar is two blocks north of the Metro station on Connecticut Avenue. We would have sat outside on the patio, but for the construction noise from across the street, where the old Van Ness Square Plaza is being replaced by Park Van Ness, a 271-unit residential project with approximately 9,000 square feet of street-level retail. Instead, we sat inside where the bar was empty on a Saturday afternoon but pleasant nonetheless.
Acacia offers a large list of wines by the glass and specializes in Mediterranean small plates, though there are also entrees available. So many items peaked our interest that we selected three small plates. The first plate was glistening chilled Roasted Eggplant Slices. Next was a stuffed Sweet Bell Pepper filled with crab meat, rice and vegetables, warm but still crunchy. Last were velvety hot Sauteed Chicken Livers with wild mushrooms in a puff pastry. All together they made for an interesting contrast of textures, temperatures, and flavors. We shared two glasses of white wine. An Austrian Gruner Veltliner that was light and fruity with a clean finish paired well with the vegetable dishes; the Hermit Crab Viogner from Australia was luscious and rich enough to stand up to the livers.
Note that Acacia is open on Saturdays at 11 a.m. but is closed on Sundays. I recommend that you do your food crawl on a Saturday to include Acacia, because the Van Ness Vision Committee still has a long way to go with this part of Connecticut Ave and options are limited.
The Cleveland Park Metro station is less than a mile down Connecticut Avenue, so you could walk it or hop back on the train. This hilly area used to be the site of summer homes for the wealthy because it was cooler than downtown DC. The neighborhood is named for President Grover Cleveland, who briefly owned a summer estate on land that was later subdivided into Cleveland Park’s neighborhoods.
Cleveland Park is known for it’s historic Uptown movie theater and the nearby National Zoo, but there are also unique restaurants and bars along the block south of the Metro. In 2009, $1.5 million was appropriated to improve the streetscape along Connecticut from Porter to Macomb Street and changes are underway.
St. Arnold’s Mussel Bar is just one block south of the Metro station. This Belgian-inspired restaurant opened in 2012, but it feels like it has been there for ages. Floor to ceiling garage door windows open spring to fall, giving the space an informal beer garden atmosphere. They serve brunch on weekends from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. with Belgian breakfast specialties, but we went for the mussels which are always available. There are 20 different versions of mussels to choose from.
The Mussels St. Arnold’s are coated in a sauce of beer, caramelized shallot, garlic, thyme and duck fat, which lends a satisfying richness to the dish. The mussel pots come with frites and a few slices of bread, but we always request more bread to catch the extra sauce. The Blue Cheese and Bacon mussels are also pretty darn good and I probably don’t have to explain why – it’s blue cheese and bacon.
Of course there is also the Belgian beer. They carry over 40 authentic Belgian beers with 19 on tap. We started off with one of the $5 brunch drinks – the Affligem Cocktail which is a blend of the Affligem Blonde Ale and raspberry framboise. Once the mussels arrived, a good Belgian beer was called for. As mentioned there are many to choose from both on draft or bottled. Hofbrau, Duvel, Palm, Ommegang, Weihenstephaner, Steenbrugge – we’ve worked our way through the list, choosing one or two to share and enjoy.
St. Arnold’s location has the advantage of being within one block of the Metro escalators. We can watch for trains approaching on our phones with WMATA Next Train, and stretch out that last beer until we know that there is a train on its way to take us and our full bellies home.
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