By Elana Schor - 07/25/12 11:51 PM EDT
What do dining corridors and species have in common? Whether they evolve gradually or in what biologist Stephen Jay Gould famously called a “punctuated equilibrium” of sudden action, one thing’s for sure: Their forward movement is unmistakable.
Such evolution is in full swing on the Columbia Heights thoroughfare of 11th Street NW, a stretch once commanded by Wonderland’s simple, veggie-friendly bar fare that now hosts no less than half a dozen good options for an easy weeknight dinner. Now joining Meridian Pint and Room 11 atop the local list are a veritable yin and yang of beverage-conscious kitchens, the wine-centric Maple and whiskey-wise Kangaroo Boxing Club.
At Maple the motto is “modern American … with Italian influences,” almost too academic of a description for what turns out to be locavore comfort food. Marinated olives and fresh cheeses bring out the flavors of its off-the-beaten-path wines, including rarely seen varietals such as the peppery teroldego and a memorably Goldilocks rose, not too sweet and not too dry.
Most diners seem to start their meals with at least a pair of the bruschetta, palm-sized rounds topped with any of six flavorful combinations. The best among them are old reliables, a bright eggplant caponata with goat cheese and a prosciutto-fig pairing, but the salty-creamy combo of cannellini beans with white anchovy is also recommended.
Those Italian notes headline the main courses, topped by an amply sized plate of homemade gnocchi with fresh pesto brighter than a cartoon forest, but the apotheosis of Maple’s humble concept turns out to be its panini and salads. Yes, a simply grilled filling of cheese and meat can prove revelatory if blended in the right ratio — and the short rib panino here is the real deal, tender hunks of slow-braised beef redolent of red wine and herbs that cling like lovers to their piquant dressing of pickled onions and the velvety crush of fontina cheese that envelops them.
Even the vegetarian panini are deliriously crowd-pleasing, the kind of sandwich that makes you forget about the meager size of its side dish. The roasted red pepper-basil panino wears its white mozzarella like the proud final third of an Italian flag, while another meatless option gets funky with the textural addition of toasted walnuts atop sharp arugula pesto.
The trio of salads is equally tantalizing, from a prosciutto-topped tangle that bounces its bracing vinaigrette off of sweet dried cherries to a fennel-arugula mountain that uses citrus to great effect opposite flaky fleur de sel. Special salads, the likes of which almost sent me tripping off a barstool to determine their contents, are occasionally added to the menu.
Speaking of that bar, the glossy, dappled hunk of maple may be Maple’s most valuable player. Retooled for its new use by Eric Gronning, the architect who co-owns the restaurant with journalist wife Lori Robertson, it adds satisfying seating capacity to an otherwise small space.
Just a few doors down, KBC is packing crowds into a homey space of a different nature, where framed old photos, used board games and a jukebox lend a rollicking quality to each meal. Not least because of the quirky name, this might be the kind of restaurant that “Animal House’s” heroes opened if they graduated with a passion for cooking — its vibe is so relaxed and genial that long wait times likely result from patrons lingering over one last drink or a slice of margarita pie.
But you might not have room for that pie, a cheeky and tasty take on Key lime, after the recent college graduates behind the popular PORC food truck fill your belly with their meatiest hits. The pulled pork is as juicy, smoky and tender as advertised, but it feels almost pedestrian on the palate after a bite of the melt-in-your-mouth pulled chicken in the southern spin on Mexican mole sauce that the kitchen calls “chocolate barbecue.”
The pastrami is also can’t-miss, a slab of high-quality brisket smoked to perfection and served in a vaguely New York-deli style with spicy mustard. Its greatness lives on in a burger that also contains the same crunchy, addictive burnt ends of meat that make a side order of the cider vinegar-soused collard greens the essential accompaniment to any plate of meat.
Though both Maple and KBC offer a strong list of beers, the former kitchen’s plates are best paired with wine and the latter’s larger-than-life flavors are best kept in check by something harder. The bar has obliged with a pair of rotating handmade cocktails, the most impressive of which is a citrus-cinnamon bourbon mélange dubbed Grandpa’s Revenge.
And just as Maple does not forget about vegetarians, so does KBC deliver the goods for diners who can resist the siren call of its carnivorous bites. The macaroni-and-cheese puts anyone’s fondest powdered-cheddar childhood memories to rest with a blue-cheese sauce thick enough for using to dip a parmesan garlic French fry, and the sweet corn johnnycakes could command double their $4 price tag with a quirkier name on a Mike Isabella menu.
Perhaps the most impressive vegetarian dish at KBC, however, is also the biggest sign of the 11th Street food revolution. A plate with the deceptively down-home name “Veg n’Egg” emerges from the undersized kitchen as a hearty helping of fresh beets, spinach and mushrooms mingled with nutty quinoa and a fried egg that runs its golden yolk into a heaping handful of vegan barbecue sauce.
Quinoa and a local duck egg on the street where only one bar could feed the masses as recently as five years ago? Times have changed in Columbia Heights, and anyone who loves thoughtful cooking should be thrilled with the evolution.