Restaurant Review: The Liberty Tavern
Clarendon’s ever-popular tavern has a new chef.
Former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said that “all politics is local.” It certainly felt that way the night President Obama stopped by The Liberty Tavern for dinner in 2011 with four of his campaign donors. (He ordered Portuguese-style swordfish with white beans and lamb sausage.) One has to assume the president’s strategists intended to stage the public appearance in a neighborhood place that felt genuine and not opulent.
They chose well. The bistro-style cuisine at Liberty may be worthy of a presidential visit, yet the vibe here is anything but pretentious. Enter at street level during happy hour, and you’re apt to find a lively, high-decibel scene, where $3.50 draft beers, half-priced wines and $5 “industrial” margaritas are served against a backdrop of dark millwork. The coveted spot for drinks is a low, U-shaped, 20-seat sectional sofa near the back that can be reserved for groups.
But of course Liberty isn’t just a bar. Follow the wainscoted walls up a wide staircase, and suddenly you’re in a cozy dining room, where soft lighting, upholstered banquettes and shaded windows place diners in a cocoon of casual comfort.
In January, the restaurant’s talented executive chef, Liam LaCivita, moved on, opening his job to newcomer Matt Hill. A native of Charlotte, N.C., Hill is a 2000 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and the former executive chef at Charlie Palmer Steak near D.C.’s Union Station. More recently, he was chef de cuisine at Range in Friendship Heights, D.C., where he worked for and with his longtime friend, Top Chef contender Bryan Voltaggio.
Like his predecessor, Hill oversees the kitchen at Liberty and its sibling establishments—the coffeehouse/wine bar Northside Social and the Alsatian brasserie Lyon Hall. All three are owned by restaurateurs Brian Normile and brothers Stephen and Mark Fedorchak, a trio known for resurrecting quirky, old Clarendon buildings and turning them into cool dining destinations. Northside occupies a former trolley station; Lyon Hall’s Art Deco building was a trophy shop for decades; and The Liberty Tavern, named in honor of the Fedorchaks’ maternal grandfather (who owned the Liberty Hotel in Carbondale, Pa.) is housed in a former Masonic temple.
On my first visit, I ask our server how the menu has changed under Hill. She responds with a giggle, then offers, “Less fennel.”
Later, during a phone conversation, the chef tells me he is bringing his “spin to the entire menu: lighter, with more olive oil and less butter.”
I found lots to appreciate, starting with the beverages. Of the bar’s many assertive, not-too-sweet cocktails, I’m partial to the Grapefruit Buck, a summer quencher made with grapefruit-infused vodka, ginger beer and fresh lime juice with a touch of elderflower liqueur. But the bartenders will tell you that the most popular drink, hands down, is the Wilson Boulevard, made with a combo of smooth and spicy Knob Creek rye, Grand Marnier and a dash of vermouth, topped with a flaming orange peel.
Also refreshing in warmer months? The salads. Beet salads are everywhere these days, but the one here is a cut above—a gorgeous arrangement of roasted red and yellow roots and crunchy smoked hazelnuts, served with a dollop of horseradish yogurt. Equally enticing are the grill-charred hearts of romaine lettuce with bits of Parma ham and mild white anchovies, finished with a light Caesar dressing. So good.
Either salad would hit the spot alongside one of the kitchen’s wood-oven-fired, Neapolitan-style pizzas. Try the maitake mushroom pie with pan-cetta and artichokes.
For meat-eaters, the starter of tender lamb ribs, dry-rubbed, smoked, steamed and finished in a fryer, is a must. (When a buddy said, mid-munch, “This is my new favorite food,” I nodded in agreement.) Still, those awesome ribs took second place once I tried the classic and simple papperdelle, which tosses broad noodles with crispy roasted cauliflower, parmesan and toasted pine nuts, all of which are then united in silky richness with a soft-cooked egg. Even the half-portions of “macaroni” (a colloquialism that belies the sophistication of the chef’s pasta dishes) are large enough to share.
Not every selection was stellar. At lunch, the lobster roll was so cold that the crustacean’s sea flavor and sweetness were completely lost. And an otherwise decent Cuban pressed sandwich of roast pork and Swiss cheese could have benefited from some South Florida love, meaning more citrus and more garlic.
Some dinner choices were a disappointment, too. A lobster tortelloni skimped on filling and had an oddly chewy texture. Though the stuffed trout sounded good, its spicy sausage, crab and chicory filling overpowered the delicate flavor of the fish.
This kitchen excels with classic American dishes. Take the homey and delicious Monday night special, fried chicken. Hill marinates his poultry for two days in pickle juice, then dredges it in flour, cornstarch and cornmeal to attain the perfect combination of crunchy on the outside and juicy on the inside. The fluffy, cheesy jalapeño biscuits that accompany the chicken make it even better.
Hill’s frying mastery is also apparent in the lunchtime fish and chips, a generous portion of flaky haddock served with crisp french fries and a mayo-less slaw.
Whatever the time of day, save room for dessert and trust that some of the unusual flavor combinations—such as the fabulous toasted rye crème brulée, infused with an essence of caraway seeds—will surprise and delight your taste buds. Linger over a slice of dense, cream-cheese-frosted walnut rum cake, or a cup of oh-so-bittersweet chocolate pudding.
Or enjoy a trio of house-churned ice creams or light sorbets, which, like the other sweets, are the handiwork of pastry chef Bridie McCulla. Her flavors, created fresh with seasonal fruits and dairy from Trickling Springs Creamery in Chambersburg, Pa., are fit for a king. Or a president.
Walter Nicholls was Arlington Magazine’s restaurant critic until June 2014. We are deeply saddened that he passed away suddenly before this issue went to press.