By Elana Schor - 04/17/08 05:42 PM EDT
In Washington, two elements of local culture are frustrating in their ubiquity: the squirrel and the comfort-food restaurant. While Lafayette Park has the country’s largest population of bushy-tailed rodents, Adams Morgan has the city’s largest population of kitchens serving boring beer and burgers.
But for those who crave a decent meal before a night out on 18th Street, hope has arrived in the surprising form of a squirrel. The Black Squirrel pairs the culinary brio of chef Gene Sohn, a veteran of the downtown Belgian standby Marcel’s, with 1970s-inspired design to craft a watering hole for grown-ups who love good food.
The chief aim of the Squirrel is to subtly upgrade your taste buds, proving that even the simplest of bar meals can rise above the average. You can still get a burger — but try one topped with a lush, creamy hunk of locally grown Pipe Dreams goat cheese, and trade in your usual Bud Light for a pint of Lithuanian lager Svyturys, one of the more than 40 exotic and reasonably priced beers on offer.
Not everything in the restaurant goes down as smoothly as its brews and beef patties, which are half-price on Thursday nights during the Squirrel’s first few months. The flock of new converts that has descended on the restaurant, located next door to the even more popular Amsterdam Falafel, creates a din that sounds pleasantly bustling before 8 p.m. but downright deafening an hour later.
The crowds, in turn, at times appear to overwhelm the good-natured servers and produce unnecessarily long waits.
A prime-time dinner at the Squirrel is unlikely to be quick, so order in courses to best experience the restaurant’s charm. The appetizers are hearty and unique enough to stand in for entrees, particularly the mussels in a light curry sauce brought down to earth by the smoke of applewood bacon, and a poached beet salad that cleanses the palate with sweet citrus vinaigrette and crunchy roasted walnuts.
Plates of fresh cheese and charcuterie, which have achieved an omnipresence of their own at the city’s new wine bars, also can be found at the Squirrel. But what looks like a name-dropping item at other spots, where the geographical pedigree of the gorgonzola can seem more important than its taste, turns out to be an unpretentious and welcome touch when paired with one of the bar’s unfiltered wheat beers.
I selected at random, joining the clove and orange flavors of a Bell’s Oberon with the almost lip-puckering tartness of a Maytag blue cheese, and found myself uninterested in any other dish. Still, lingering into a third course is possible without feeling any pressure to cede your seat to any waiting diners.
Unparalleled people-watching opportunities await if you snag a seat at one of the half-booth tables along the wall. From self-confident customers advising the friendly owners on the perfect white wine to keep in stock to flirtatious couples comparing their buffalo-wing hot sauces, the relaxed ambience in the red-paneled dining room is a sign that the restaurant has already become part of the neighborhood. Young children even camp out in the one window seat in the house, where low, padded stools are crowded around a table made from the stump of a gigantic tree.
Taking a cue from the masculine 1970s poster art on the walls, including posters for “Deliverance” and “Superfly” and a collage of bikini models, the menu’s most popular dishes are rich, sturdy and meaty. The duck confit spring roll appetizer, studded with plump raisins and wrapped in the French pastry known as feuille de bric, and the baby back ribs steeped in barbecue sauce for 24 hours have become overnight hits.
But I much preferred the more refined touches from Sohn’s kitchen. A grilled Angus ribeye was hardly memorable, especially when served with the same mashed potatoes-and-bacon hash you might find at a chain steakhouse.
Similarly, the steak simmered in sesame and soy sauce proved too tough to bite into when it arrived. But the baked turnip that came alongside it was marvelously dense, with a nutty tang reminiscent of Southern sweet potato pie. The spicy fish stew, a heady blend of shrimp, mussels and vegetables in Old Bay broth, is the perfect warming tonic for a cool spring night.
The Squirrel excels at dessert, a course much neglected by the cookie-cutter ethnic nightspots that share its busy city block. The homemade rum-raisin ice cream, laced with swirls of strawberry sauce, is ten times as decadent as a freezer pint of Häagen-Dazs, and the “milkshake and cupcake” is a retro knockout. What looks like a humble Ring-Ding cake oozes hypnotic warm chocolate ganache, and the chocolate milkshake is blended with a rotating cast of refreshing add-ins (on my trip, the special was mint and basil).
If it were located in any other neighborhood, the Black Squirrel might fade into comfortable success amid a new string of fusion tapas restaurants and four-star tourist havens. But on the mediocre strip of Adams Morgan’s central drag, it stands out like — well, like a black squirrel among the gray-tailed hordes of Lafayette Park.
2427 18th St. NW (between Belmont Road and N. Adams Mill) | (202) 232-1011 | Open 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Fri-Sat.