By Elana Schor - 04/22/10 11:29 PM EDT
In the early days of American colonial resistance to British rule, a massive elm planted on Boston Common became a popular gathering spot and an emblem of political energy. Known as the Liberty Tree, it inspired similar landmarks in cities as far away as Amsterdam and Rome.
And while the Tea Party movement has lately adopted the Liberty Tree for its anti-government protests, the spirit of the original elm — a sanctuary for planning both big adventures and small happenings — remains most alive along H Street NE. There, in a neighborhood known for circus sideshows and disco sushi bars, two New Englanders have dared to be different by taking it down a notch to serve rich, homey American classics under the name Liberty Tree.
Glufling appears far too busy on most nights to work the crowd, but a meal at Liberty Tree is still reminiscent of a lively dinner party at his personal table.
The menu begins with “small plates,” the kind of inventive finger food that home cooks often put out to sate their guests, and skipping these dirt-cheap concoctions would mean missing out on the restaurant’s unique joie de vivre.
The peppadew peppers are simple but revelatory, their pillowy goat-cheese filling nicely balanced against the lip-puckering tang of the red flesh. A surprisingly large portion of wood-roasted olives is the real deal. The olives’ smoky saltiness pairs nicely with a cocktail and an accompanying handful of warm, crusty bread for dipping.
One small plate that missed the mark was the Brussels sprouts with bacon, a generally reliable pairing that overdosed on its own gooey balsamic syrup.
But the sleeper hit of the bunch is the fried onion straws, a Matchbox staple that Glufling does one better by adding a coat of grated Parmesan and truffle oil. The sharp cheese heightens the sweetness of the onions, which are crisped enough to easily grab one at a time, creating an experience so addictive that I had to restrain my companion from licking her finger to pick up the last few crumbs of breading.
The appetizer list is equally strong, as the chef shows his roots in a winey terrine of roasted littleneck clams that emit heady puffs of garlic. The scallops are also a fine choice, festooned with spicy fennel curls, though their serving size is too small, considering the dish has a price point identical to an arugula salad large enough to take up the White House garden — and refined enough to thrill the foodie first lady, who would appreciate the juicy beets and spring-ready lemon vinaigrette.
If there was any doubt that Liberty Tree aims to please, as opposed to amaze, its service clears up the matter. Staffers are approachable and ready to answer questions about the menu, but be prepared to hear cheerful apologies for sold-out items and flubbed orders, particularly if you’re craving the pigs-in-a-blanket made with Portuguese sausage.
The beer and wine list is also unlikely to throw curveballs, dominated by labels easily found at local grocery stores. Still, the prices more than make up for the lack of any magnificent malbecs or stouts: All wines are $8 for a generous pour and $30 per bottle, and several beers rate even more cheaply on the scale. As summer nears, the owners are reportedly planning to open outdoor seating, which has a way of elevating even the most predictable libation.
Among the entrées, the kitchen fares best with strong flavors and thick sauces. Some of the most solid offerings are heavier meats, such as the spicy meatball hero, its peppery bite snapping through an oddly under-seasoned sauce and dense white bread; and grilled steak basking in a port wine reduction. The latter plate’s colors are almost as delightful as its flavors, making for a fall palette where melt-in-your-mouth sweet potato mash competes with cranberry-spiked caramelized onions and forest-green wilted spinach.
But the chef risks a fatal attraction to cream, which drowns out the delicate texture of scallops and vegetables in two separate pot pies, leaving diners to swirl their buttery homemade puff pastry in a bland sea of white. Even rigatoni tossed with crackling bits of pancetta is made milky via sun-dried tomato cream sauce, making you wish the chef had left dairy out of the picture.
Of course, every pattern is made to be broken; and in fact, the best dinner dish in the house uses cream to great effect. The roasted cod flakes off at the mere tap of the fork, its burnt sienna skin crisped with subtle citrus notes that emanate from a white wine cream sauce dotted by slivers of shallot.
Fragrant fingerling potatoes and a luscious tangle of the same spinach that accompanied the steak complete what may be the best $14 you will ever spend on dinner in the District.
Resist the urge to order seconds of the cod, however, because Glufling saves some of his best comfort food for last. Liberty Tree serves just three desserts, but two of them — fruit crisp and bread pudding — cry out to be ordered together. The former is beautifully short on added sugar save for a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and the latter goes the opposite route with a banana rum sauce that had me taking a turn stealing last licks from a clean plate.
If you’re not hungry enough for two desserts, try ordering another glass of wine and chatting up an adjoining table as the servers clear the house. After all, conviviality was the purpose of the Revolutionary-era Liberty Tree, and so it should be for the latest iteration.