It's best to approach Zest American Bistro, the new Barracks Row eatery, like any recently arrived neighbor: Focus on the good and try to overlook the flaws.
[IMGCAP(1)]What's good about the amiable addition to the corridor? A cheery interior that makes a great backdrop for happy hour sipping, generally friendly service and a few hits on the eclectic menu.
But the kitchen runs seriously hot and cold, and a meal there can be maddeningly uneven.
A visit to Zest (735 Eighth St. SE) starts out promising. First, it's a much-needed addition to the neighborhood, where the demand for fun, modern restaurants outstrips the supply. Exposed brick walls, blond wood and an open kitchen hint at good things to come, while jazzy Capitol-themed artwork provides a local flavor. Moderate prices (entrees hover around $15 and sandwich platters are about $10) hit a sweet spot for neighborhood diners and Capitol Hill staffers willing to venture a little farther than the usual spots for a working lunch.
And the menu (it's the same for lunch and dinner) covers all the bases: salads, sandwiches, burgers and straightforward entrees with a globe-skimming flair. Throw in a small but well-edited beer and wine list, and it has all the makings of a new neighborhood favorite.
Some of the menu items live up to the title. French fries (which are deceptively difficult to get right) are a tangle of crispy little straws, and burgers are a beefy, comforting standard. Salads that accompany sandwiches are peppery mixed greens slicked with a lemony vinaigrette. A chopped salad combined the salty notes of country ham and feta cheese with creamy, herb-scented Green Goddess dressing.
And the biggest hit to come out of Zest's kitchen was the braised lamb shank, which was meltingly tender, served with a creamy polenta and tomatoes gently roasted overnight to concentrate their flavors.
But the misses are hard to overlook. A grilled cheese sandwich arrived on my plate grilled only on one side, leaving a doughy underside of bread and a flabby, unmelted slab of asiago cheese inside. Pale pink tomatoes didn't help its flavor or texture.
An onion-crusted chicken sounded intriguing but proved to be merely odd, with a coating that lacked an expected crunch and chicken that barely registered. A tomato soup more closely resembled a thick pasta sauce than a soup. A grilled shrimp appetizer boasted perfectly cooked, zippy shrimp, but they were eclipsed by the dense, overlarge corn pancakes sharing the plate.
Some dishes — not on the dessert menu — suffer from overwhelming sweetness. A "caramelized" onion soup tasted more of caramel than onion, and a beet and squash salad lacked a savory counterpoint to the natural sugar in the vegetables.
Desserts were unremarkable. A hazelnut crunch was the best of the selections, while a pear panna cotta was slightly over-gelatinized and the bread pudding was dry.
The story behind Zest is more interesting than what comes out of the kitchen. Amanda Briggs, a Capitol Hill resident and former general manager for Deluxe Restaurant Group, the outfit behind the popular Cafe Deluxe locations, wanted to create an inviting spot for people like herself and her young family, and opened Zest in December. Former Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.), Briggs' husband's stepfather, is an investor.
"We just felt like there was a real need for a creative American bistro that caters to the diversity of Capitol Hill — the lobbyists, staffers and neighborhood families," she says. "We've had a great response so far."
Perhaps the kitchen needs time to work on its consistency or a surer hand behind the stove. Like a nice new neighbor, I'm ready to give it the benefit of the doubt.