A raw-bar charm, a well-cooked history

A raw-bar charm, a well-cooked history

When you walk into Senart’s Oyster & Chop House, you don’t feel like you’re on Capitol Hill. It’s more New England than Barracks Row. Maybe it’s the walnut wood paneling down the narrow old row house, paintings depicting circa-1920s brawls and restaurant scenes, or 50-foot white marble bar. Then again, it could be a sort of karmic effect: The restaurant is a revival — or reincarnation — of a family restaurant with the same name run from approximately 1913 to 1939 in that exact spot (take a look at the preserved ghost mural on the north-alley exterior wall). 

Ghost stories aside, one thing is for sure: It’s an Xavier Cervera restaurant, and his fourth of an expected five on Eighth Street SE. 

Like the other three Cervera restaurants, Senart’s goes for old-school charm in terms of décor. The walnut walls are adorned with framed black-and-white photos from a famed Baltimore Sun photojournalist, A. Aubrey Bodine, who snapped shots of the greater D.C. area around the same time as the original Senart’s oyster house. Most of the chairs in the 65-seat restaurant are bar stools; the rest are for a single, bay-window four-top booth and a handful of tables at the back of the restaurant next to the petite open kitchen. And, when weather permits, there are a few extra tables on the front patio. But the bar, with its oysters on one end and bottles and taps running down the length, dominates. 

The raw bar stocks on average four types of oysters, often split 50-50 between the East and West coasts. Local waters were well represented with bivalves from Chincoteague and Nassawadox in Virginia and Choptank Sweets from Maryland. The left coast was represented by Totten Inlet, Wash., and Yaquina Bay, Ore. Served in the typical on-the-half-shell manner, the oysters vary in flavor by region (East Coasters are sweet, West Coasters more briny) but were all very fresh. Hit up the raw bar during Senart’s daily happy hour for the best value, when prices are knocked down by about 40 percent. (But note that drinks are still full price!)

The weekday lunch scene was low-key and quiet. A seat at the bar would be a good place for a solo diner, and a table tucked in the back would be prime real estate for a working lunch where deals are to be made. Weekend dinners, on the other hand, were anything but tranquil and secluded. Making your way through the bar crowd to the bathroom was a tough negotiation with stools, shoulders and servers. But once you were back in the saddle, there were plenty of reasons to stay. 

Chef Brian Klein (formerly at Brasserie Beck) runs daily soup and fish specials. One dish special was a Scottish salmon fillet coupled with pancetta-wrapped oysters with a leaf of basil slipped inside. The salmon was slightly dry but still tasty; eaten with a bit of the oyster with its crispy ham exterior, lush bivalve interior and fresh herb flavor, its faults were forgotten. 

Seared grouper was the highlight of another day’s special, but its bed of sautéed tomato spaetzle (a kind of German dumpling that’s like a short, nubby pasta) was what stole the show. The fish was fine, nicely browned atop moist flakes of fillet, and the lobster-cream sauce that went with it was expectedly creamy and lobster-flavored. But the spaetzle was special. The ruddy bits of dumpling were slightly sweet from the tomato and had buttery, golden edges from a quick trip through a hot sauté pan. It was a clever twist on a classic that will hopefully find a more permanent dish to call home. 

Menu mainstays had their pluses — and a few minuses, too. The lavender and honey-glazed duck breast was a well-rounded, delightful dish. The skin on the duck breast was crisp and salty-sweet and the breast meat was rosy pink, juicy and judiciously lavender-scented. Served with a sweet potato hash mixed with morsels of duck confit and a richly savory jus (a sort of pan gravy made from the meat juices), the dish was something to come back for. 

Equally successful was the grilled hanger steak with bordelaise sauce and onion rings. The steak was precisely grilled to the requested doneness and had all the meaty flavor and succulence you could ask for from a hanger cut. Vying for stardom on the plate were the onion rings: flawless hoops of tender onion encased in a dainty bread crumb-and-buttermilk shell that crackled with each bite. Fortunately, they were also offered as a side dish for a re-supply. 

The blueberry barbecue pork chop was just mediocre. The chop was handsome and thick but was slightly dry and didn’t deliver on the promised blueberry barbecue front. Maybe it’s a matter of culinary semantics, but “grilled” and “with blueberries” seemed a more appropriate dish description. 

Two types of open-face sliders, one piled with shredded beef short-rib meat and another (on the lunch menu) loaded with Maine lobster and shrimp, suffered from mushy brioche rolls as their base. They would benefit from sturdier bread, especially because the short ribs erred on the greasy side. Regardless of the boggy bun, the lobster and shrimp sliders featured plump chunks of shellfish and a creamy mayonnaise dressing — classic and enjoyable on its own. However, the pickle chip garnish was all wrong in flavor; it reeked of cumin seed, which in excess takes on an odd, sweaty taste. Just ditch the pickle.

Any dessert order should include the carrot cake with cream cheese icing and bourbon cream. In fact, that’s the only dessert worth ordering. The cake was moist, gently spiced and laced with shreds of tender carrot. The icing was deliciously thick but not heavy or cloying; its cream-cheese tang balanced its sweetness. What’s more, the proportion of the cake, icing and slightly boozy bourbon cream were just so, as was the portion itself: not too big to get you stuffed, but not too small to make you feel cheated, either. 

Since its opening in late April, Senart’s has found its place in the 21st century. Filled with historical allure and an amusing story of restaurant reincarnation, it has a cheerful vibe, affable service and a good selection of beers on tap and wine to boot. Almost by design, Senart’s strong suits are its raw bar and wide array of drink options, and the menu, despite some missteps, offers good fare at moderate prices.