When Redwood opened in Summer 2008, it was a fashionable space with expensive, disappointing food. Some of it was even dreadful.
Among the dishes I’m glad to never eat again: baked clams filled with a landslide of heavy, bready stuffing; pulverized Pennsylvania rabbit, a dull spread that could have been anything (tuna fish?); and meat (you name it—chicken, pork, beef) that was invariably overcooked. Washington Post restaurant reviewer Tom Sietsema wrote that he’s not a squeamish diner—but Redwood’s rotisserie duck made even him grimace, arriving with curled, webbed feet and tasting dry and reheated.
With its emphasis on locally grown, naturally raised, seasonal and sustainable ingredients, Redwood was an embarrassing example of how good intentions don’t necessarily translate into good-tasting food. What a shame, given its prominent location and $2-million-plus construction.
But with a new chef, new menus and a farmer’s market on the pedestrian walkway right outside the restaurant’s door (and windows), Redwood merited another visit. And while the current cooking may not be as awesome as those giant sequoias that inspired the name, things are looking up.
One welcome addition is a Thursday night three-course farmer’s market menu, made from items Executive Chef Blake Schumpert buys that day from the Bethesda Central Farm Market on Bethesda Lane. Schumpert, by the way, was executive chef at Richmond’s popular Millie’s Diner most recently, and also cooked at Ardeo Restaurant and Citronelle in Washington, D.C., as well as at topnotch kitchens in New York and San Francisco.
I ordered the market menu one Thursday in early September, and it was one of the better meals I’ve eaten there—even though the main course, barramundi (a rich, white-fleshed fish farmed in the U.S.), didn’t actually come from the market. (When I spoke to Schumpert about it later, he said he had considered buying cod from the market’s seafood purveyor that day, but wanted to use up the barramundi he had in-house, and was expecting a delivery of halibut the next day. “My business sense pulled me back,” he said. “I didn’t want to be juggling too much fish.” He said he tries to get as much as he can from the market for the farm menu, but the restaurant isn’t “guaranteeing that every morsel will be bought there.”)
The items purchased there—the corn, tomatoes and jumbo lump crabmeat—were lovely company for the crispy-skinned sautéed fish. Less compatible was the first course, a salad of tomatoes and watermelon whose flavors didn’t mesh.
Other dishes on the regular menu that evening were improvements on some of the early dinner incarnations. A summer market lettuce salad was a big, lively collection of mixed greens. On a mound of corn and shrimp risotto, huge scallops sat surrounded by an emerald moat of pureed sugar snap and English peas, spinach and pistou—a stunning and delicious exercise in chlorophyll extraction.
There were disappointments, such as an overcooked pork loin, chilly sliced peaches served with profiteroles that would have shown off their summer flavor far better at room temperature, and dinner rolls that were surprisingly stale. I felt like leaning out the window and grabbing fresher bread from the market.
There were things to like at two subsequent lunches. A starter of crispy salmon and shrimp cakes was a sleek combination of tastes and textures, with its soothing yogurt cucumber salad and slight-bite ginger curry vinaigrette. Iron skillet blue bay mussels, an appetizer also served by Schumpert’s predecessor, was better this time with a fennel, saffron and herb broth. With more of that grilled focaccia, I could have sopped up all the broth and called it a meal. (Speaking of carb loading, a side order of sea-salted flatbread is a must-have accompaniment for a salad or entrée.)
As for main courses, a terrific wood-grilled burger with white cheddar and mushrooms, served medium rare as requested, had great, beefy flavor without being heavy or greasy. Less successful was a curried chicken salad sandwich served on a soft roll; I would have preferred crustier bread and more curry. The pizza of the day, topped with peppers, onions and a respectable house-made sausage, had possibilities, but was loaded with olive oil, leaving telltale pools on the plate.
Under the old kitchen regime, there wasn’t a dessert worth the calories. Now, it’s a pleasure to indulge. My favorite of the September offerings: a peach and raspberry shortcake that looked like a dessert version of Stonehenge, its slab-shaped slices of almond-flavored cake leaning against one another, interspersed with sliced peaches, whipped cream and raspberries.
Jared Rager, now the sole owner of the restaurant, says he wants it to be a friendly neighborhood spot, and hopes the servers convey that attitude. I had one very likable waiter; otherwise, the wait staff could loosen up. I’m also not sure the décor and atmosphere suggest warm and fuzzy—there’s sort of a chic detachment to the place.
Still, Redwood is definitely new and improved. It’s not yet consistent. But at this point, that may be too tall an order.
Highlights: Redwood Restaurant and Bar
7121 Bethesda Lane, Bethesda
Open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Open for dinner Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m. Open for brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Happy hour Monday through Friday, 4 to 7 p.m. Lounge open 4 p.m. until closing.
Brunch entrees, $8 to $15; lunch entrees, $8 to $15; dinner entrees, $14 to $27. Three-course Thursday night farmer’s market dinner (held yearlong, so long as the farm market is operating), ranges from $34 to $42.
Recommended, especially when the patio is closed.
While Redwood previously emphasized unique and/or organic New World wines, it now also offers global selections with more recognizable bottles.
Crispy salmon and shrimp cakes with yogurt cucumber salad and ginger curry vinaigrette, iron skillet blue bay mussels, flatbread, day boat scallops with corn and baby shrimp risotto and sugar snap peas, Roseda Farms hamburger. (Note that some items change daily, others seasonally.)
Peach and raspberry shortcake, sour cream apple-walnut crumble with cinnamon gelato.
Good Place to Go For
A stylish, politically correct lunch; farm market dinner.
Street parking, public lots, Bethesda Metro.
Carole Sugarman is a former food writer for The Washington Post.