By Elana Schor - 03/01/12 12:32 AM EST
One might sooner describe the meaning of life than define American food, a breed of cuisine inexorably dictated by each diner’s regional favorites, from Philly cheesesteaks to Miami crab claws to Los Angeles tacos. To cover the horizon is to cover them all.
And that is exactly what Jeff Tunks, the local impresario whose Passion Food outfit also steers Ceiba and Acadiana, has done with the new Foggy Bottom boîte District Commons. As its name suggests, the Commons presents upscale classics in a format that’s surprisingly egalitarian for its well-heeled clientele — think red, white and blue Le Creuset pots bearing succulent mussels in sauces for each color of Old Glory.
The Commons’s impeccable service cannot always mask the clamor in its open-plan dining room, where ultra-modern décor, an open kitchen and floor-to-ceiling windows on one end can leave customers’ ears ringing. At the back of the cavernous venue are more secluded booths that are worth requesting, particularly for those seeking a more romantic evening.
But the servers make for excellent guides through the vast menu, anchored by a raw bar with some of the smoothest off-season oysters you’ll taste anywhere and a quintet of cracker-thin flatbreads. Those appetizers are sized well for sharing and amount to a miniature American tour of sorts, with a San Francisco veggie-chic option brightened by velvety pesto and a Tennessee prosciutto pie kicked up by tangy blue cheese.
Anyone missing the lox-and-capers spread of a New York Jewish household would share my elation at the smoked salmon flatbread — though one of my companions deemed its quirky mix of lemon and mascarpone akin to aged cheese and crackers.
But the best appetizer on hand is the smallest, a forearm’s length of warm pretzel baguette served with beer-mustard butter so addictive that I began searching for other side items upon which to spread it. The simple, communal act of tearing this round of dough into its four parts, smelling the yeast and salt it emits, is a perfect scene-setter for the meal to come.
That meal can include sustainably caught seafood or a burger made from juicy short ribs — but if you’re looking for greens to accompany it, the salad with deviled eggs is a can’t-miss addition to the main courses. Wearing its piquant mustard vinaigrette like a designer dress, this deceptively simple salad is a comforting winner even without the crispy bacon gilding the lily of each creamy egg.
The two other salads on offer are quirkier but still worthy. One swaps dressing for a thicker green tomato chutney atop its arugula and crispy chicken skin, while another kicks up the traditionally American Caesar salad with extra garlic.
Especially if that roller-coaster of a Caesar comes to table, you’ll be in need of a drink to wash down Tunks’s gems. His servers are MVPs again on that front, recommending a unique bottle or glass from the lengthy list of American craft brews and wines.
The cocktail list scores higher for its more inventive “specialty” lineup, which is knocked from $10 to $5 during happy hour, than for its occasionally syrupy classics served under the “21st Amendment” heading. But just as Tunks makes younger foodies part of the action with a refreshingly down-to-earth kids’ menu, so does he include teetotalers with “mocktails” such as the New-Fashioned, a zippy riff on Don Draper’s favorite that adds bubbles and cherry balsamic syrup.
The slippery nature of American food aside, diners of any age or drinking preference rarely turn down a plate of mashed potatoes as lush as those Tunks pairs with his succulent hank of pressed chicken. Should you prefer the sweeter parsnip puree that accompanies the grilled salmon, however, or even an extra serving of rainbow chard, a substitution is no problem for the easygoing kitchen.
You’d be criminal to change the presentation of the “low and slow” roasted duck, its skin crisped and caramelized beneath a zesty chili glaze and the fragrance of its smoky meat teased out by a hash of dark rice and sweet potatoes. This is a dish to carry flagging winter spirits through to spring — as is that short-rib burger, served alongside a light heap of slaw and salty fries.
Other entrees look to several corners of the American culinary imagination with varying degrees of success but an indomitable spirit. The North Carolina trout falls a bit flat due to its wan citrus-butter sauce, but the New Orleans shrimp and grits is a gooey, spicy delight thanks to Tunks’s Louisiana heritage.
Of course, dessert is one area where the U.S. never fails to make its mark. If you may not have room for any of the patriotic pastries on offer, from a dense devil’s-food cake to a traditional apple pie, don’t back down from splitting one of the terrific sundaes. Seeing a hard-bitten grown-up’s eyes light up upon tasting the individually burnt marshmallows on a bowl of Rocky Road — well, it makes you proud to be an American.
2200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Hours: Lunch, Monday - Friday, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Brunch, Sunday, 11 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday - Thursday, 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m., Friday until 11 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 5 p.m. - 11 p.m.
Prices: Average appetizer price $11, average entrée price $23. Reservations recommended at all times.
Ideal Meal: Oysters from the raw bar, mixed green salad, roasted duck, Rocky Road sundae.