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On any given night, more than two dozen diners could find themselves in upgraded circumstances. Control over one’s comfort in a public place is no small luxury. And this in a venue whose entrees average $35.
The name in the title refers to Jerry Hollinger, whose other Maryland restaurants are the Daily Dish in Silver Spring and the Dish & the Dram in Kensington. His third venture of him is his most ambitious of him yet and continues something of a theme at this location, previously home to two steakhouses, the Classics and Ray’s the Classics. Hollinger, a Mennonite whose parents operated a grocery store in Lancaster, Pa., and who went on to become a chef and caterer, concedes that the restaurant’s mile-long name is a mouthful. Beyond honoring his family’s name, “Waterman’s Chophouse” makes subtle nods to seafood and steak, words Hollinger considers outdated.
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A little dream team takes care of diners. The kitchen, visible from the bar, finds John Manolatos in command. You might have tasted his talent at the much-missed Cashion’s Eat Place in Washington. The chef’s brother, George Manolatos, who eleven co-owned Cashion’s with him, serves as general manager. The suit advising you on wine, Timothy Clune, worked at the late Requin at the Wharf before trying his hand with beer at the nearby Astro Lab Brewing.
Let’s eat! Soup and salads hint at good things to eat on the menu. Asparagus soup tastes as if the signature vegetable were just plucked from the earth, passed over some steam and pureed with basil and mint; the intense color comes from spinach added just before serving. Fish soup features local rockfish, specifically its belly, treated like salt cod, and paprika for rich, smoky flavor. “George’s” garden salad goes Greek with feta cheese, tomatoes and cucumber. What sets it apart from other green salads is its dressing, a combination of red wine and sherry sweetened with minced shallots and biting with garlic — delicious inducement to finish your vegetables.
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“Light bites” — steamed mussels, vegetable tempura, housemade spaghetti — are designed for people who want something bigger than an appetizer but smaller than a typical main course. The star of the lot marries surf and turf: Crisp shrimp toast and caramelized pork belly share their stage with flavor pumps including kimchi and sweet-mustardy tomato jam, as entertaining as anything that might be playing across the street at the AFI Silver Theatre. You could easily make a meal of the cooked-just-right pasta, a swirl of butter-glossed spaghetti scattered with sweet Virginia clams, ignited with red pepper flakes and better for the crackle of garlicky breadcrumbs on top.
I’m repeatedly reminded that John Manolatos cooked with James Beard award winner Ann Cashion, now a partner at Los Compañeros. Consider the crab cake, Cashion’s recipe bonding jumbo lump crab with cracker meal and just enough mayonnaise and mustard to keep the prize together (and tasting mostly of crab). The dish is accompanied by double-fried french fries, confetti-cut coleslaw and a tartar sauce that promotes fresh chervil, lemon and capers over fat.
The reasonable prices happen because Hollinger personally buys produce at auction from Amish sources in Pennsylvania and trucks the ingredients to his three businesses. Manolatos also offers smaller portions of beef than you might see at other steak sources. The restaurant opened in May with an 18-ounce dry-aged Kansas City strip steak priced just over $60; by trimming the cut (a New York strip with the bone in) to 14 ounces, he can charge $48. I’m partial to the coulotte, a lean but tender cut whose pronounced flavor is complemented with brushstrokes of clarified butter on the grill.
The chef also offers composed dishes — thoughtful unions of protein, starch and vegetable — meaning you don’t need a side dish to round out an entree. J. Hollinger’s juicy brined pork chop could stand on its own, but how much nicer to see it presented atop lemony spaetzle with bright English peas, dark kale and a curtain of morel cream sauce? Arrangements can change from visit to visit; the constant is the kitchen’s habit of not getting in the way of good ingredients.
Clune, the wine director and assistant general manager, is the epitome of a good neighbor for offering distinctive glasses for as little as $10 and suggesting bottles below the price of the selections you’re mulling. “I like weird grapes from weird places — and value,” says Clune. Pro tip: Uruguay makes some good wine, and Clune is happy to introduce you to the joys of Artesana Tannat for $47. He’s also good at finding just the right bottle to bridge seafood and steak, as the night he poured an Elizabeth Spencer grenache, lush with fruit flavors (imagine ripe raspberries and strawberries), nicely acidic and finishing with mineral notes.
There might be lags between courses. But the wait pays off when, say, a juicy hamburger patted from ground chuck and brisket finally lands on the table, inside a brioche bun baked on-site. It took time for my salmon from the Faroe Islands to make its appearance, too. All’s forgiven when the prime fish surfaces with such fun companions as a tater tot flavored with fresh dill and meltingly soft cabbage, its butter sauce popping with orange salmon roe.
Other chop houses might offer a slab of cheesecake and call it a day. This one lets you walk, rather than waddle, out thanks to the light lime Bavarian topping on this crisp-bottomed version of the steakhouse staple.
There’s a lot of talk in the industry about being approachable. J. Hollinger’s Waterman’s Chophouse not only walks the talk, it lets some fortunate customers adjust their own ambiance. From now on, when people ask “Where’s the beef?” or “How about fish?” I’ll point them to Silver Spring and a restaurant that can teach Washington some new tricks.
J. Hollinger’s Waterman’s Chophouse
8606 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring, Md. 301-328-0035. jhollingers.com. Open: Indoor dining and takeout 5 to 9 pm daily and 11 am to 2:30 pm Saturday and Sunday. Prices: Dinner appetizers $9 to $45, main courses $19 to $75. Sound check: 72 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers at entrance; restrooms are ADA-compliant. Pandemic protocols: Masks for staff are optional; most, but not all, staff are vaccinated.