Restaurant Review: Open Kitchen

Open Kitchen can be inconsistent. But when it's good, it's really good.

I had a memorable encounter with a fellow diner and a near-perfect meal on my second of three visits to Open Kitchen. Taking a seat at its modern, curved wood bar, which overlooks the kitchen action, I watched order after order of the most visually appealing roasted chicken being readied by a team of keenly focused sous-chefs.

Each glistening and perfectly browned leg and breast was propped just so, then embellished with a scoop of Yukon mashed potatoes and another of ratatouille. Servers quickly whisked most of the pretty birds away to the 12 tables on the all-weather enclosed balcony, which serves as the restaurant’s main dining room. But one—and, sadly, the last of the evening—landed two bar seats down from me in front of a multitasking woman, who worked her laptop and her plate in unison. I couldn’t help but ask: “How’s the chicken?”

“Really good,” she told me with a satisfied smile. “I’m in town every two weeks on business and I always come here for the healthy ‘smart chicken.’ ” Kind Wendy from Detroit then asked me to pass her my plate, at which point a moist, crisp-skinned leg was mine. And it was really good, as she had promised, to the last bite. Meanwhile, I had chosen the lamb entrée—an exceptionally tender grilled loin accompanied by little slabs of roasted sweet potato and wilted micro chard.

Both of these terrific dishes were designed by D.C. native Kenneth Hughes, who came on board as executive chef in 2010, one year after the five-night-a-week bistro—which also offers cooking classes, weekly wine tastings and an event space for interactive, food-centric private parties—was launched by local health care consultants Hue-Chan Karels and her husband, John.  

I’m happy to report that the delightful second visit was a vast improvement over my first trip to Open Kitchen, which unfortunately coincided with Hughes’ fall vacation. In a restaurant that aspires to fine dining—albeit one with paper napkins—the absence of the top toque should not be evident on the plate. But that first night, it was. My friend and I left thinking we would have been better off grabbing a burger at the McDonald’s that shares the same parking lot.

That evening got off to a rocky start with a meager serving of dried-out French bread, warmed far too long in the oven. We shared a bland Caesar salad, followed by the $16 appetizer of “lobster bread pudding,” which came as a molded tower of cream-soaked bread with only a smidgen of claw meat on top. No bang for those bucks.

In any other restaurant that I know of, “pork medallions” are fanned slices from the tenderloin. Not here. The two tall, dense chunks of roasted pork were too chewy, although we did enjoy the creamy white corn grits that came as an accompaniment.

Still, the worst offender was the $35 16-ounce rib-eye steak frites. Thin and as large as the dinner plate, the meat was nearly raw (instead of the requested medium rare), a heavy coat of seasoning rub covering its high proportion of gristle and fat. Adding odd to insult, the nice enough potato wedges languished underneath it.

Fortunately, the kitchen redeemed itself on my second and third time around. For seafood fans, I can recommend two picture-perfect appetizers: a seared Ahi tuna with a subtle Asian vinaigrette; and also the flavorfully complex white bean and grilled shrimp salad. The latter is composed of three large, sweet prawns, mingled with creamy legumes and crunchy carrot and celery batons in a dressing rich with lemon, mustard seeds and a touch of basil. Perfect.

And on a blustery winter night, I’ll be sure to return to Open Kitchen for a bowl of comforting corn bacon chowder, topped with a zip of pepper purée.

I wanted to like the appealing concept of a puff pastry tart filled with assorted root vegetables, but mine was soggy on the bottom, and the salad alongside it was extraordinarily salty.

Far more attention was paid to the fall-off-the-bone duck leg confit with tender green lentils and bits of crisp prosciutto. The same praise may be given to the pan-seared sea scallops, which shared a pretty plate with mashed potatoes infused with creamed leeks.

Don’t waste your calorie count and money on the desserts, each with its own dated zigzag or squiggle of sauce. I forked-into, tasted and left behind an overcooked crème brulée, a forgettable fruit strudel and an undercooked bread pudding.

Despite its flaws, this ambitious little place has unfailingly gracious service and an atmosphere that makes you feel welcome. I sensed a deep devotion and effort from the kitchen to provide robustly seasoned dishes that you won’t find just anywhere.

At the very least, go for the smart chicken.

Open Kitchen

7115 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church 703-942-8148, www.openkitchen-dcmetro.com

Open:
Wine tastings: Mondays, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Dinner: Wednesday through Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.

Prices:
Appetizers $8 to $16
Entrées $19 to $35

Reservations: Suggested on weekends

Bar and Cellar: Four boutique beers and more than 30 wines by the glass and bottle. The wine menu changes monthly.

Parking: On-site lot. The West Falls Church Metro station is a 10-minute walk.

Categories: Food & Drink
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