For those who believe there’s nothing more stressful than starting a new job, try starting five.
Boxcar Tavern (224 Seventh St. SE) Executive Chef Brian Klein got such a package deal when he hitched his wagon to hospitality impresario Xavier Cervera, the Capitol Hill denizen with designs on launching at least four additional restaurant concepts — just as soon as he finishes building them out.
“Everything is a go,” Klein quipped, noting that having a veteran developer/contractor like Cervera overseeing everything helps keep their expansion train moving.
Team Cervera is putting the finishing touches on several pending projects, a slate that includes Pacifico, a “Mexican-fusion dinner place” that Klein expects to have up and running before summer. The reconfigured Hawk ’n’ Dove is supposed to take flight the following quarter. The forecast gets fuzzy after that, with Klein declining to speculate about when Willie’s Brew and Que and Park Tavern — both pledged to the prospective neighborhood being cultivated around Nationals Park — might welcome their first clients.
Cervera began his climb to Capitol Hill dominance by opening Lola’s Barracks Bar & Grill. Next up was Molly Malone’s. Then came the swanky Chesapeake Room. The equally tony Senart’s Oyster & Chop House followed shortly thereafter. And gastropubby Boxcar followed late last December.
Klein said he joined Cervera’s team roughly one year ago, just before Senart’s debuted, quickly becoming the group’s Mr. Fix-It. He retooled the Chesapeake Room about six months back — the scrumptious, mustard-tinged jumbo lump crab cakes were his idea — and has been behind the burners at Boxcar since day one.
“I’m having a great time with it,” the veteran toque said of the immense responsibility he’s now shouldering.
Sweating the Details
The neighborhood appears to be responding in kind.
Like many Capitol Hill eateries, Boxcar is narrow but deep. This row house configuration often leads to bottlenecking in the bar-cocktail booth corridor and long waits (we were quoted an hour-plus one Friday night) for the two larger tables—communal benches, really — parked at opposite ends of the main dining room.
Still, the place draws all kinds.
“I thought I was waiting for you at the office,” one mildly perplexed fellow announced as he strolled in late one afternoon. “Nope,” his already entrenched colleague, obviously an old hat at playing hooky, replied from his perch at the bar.
Lackadaisical socialites holding court, bike messengers seeking refuge from the unseasonably mild winter (one actively perspiring dude popped in to wrap his lips around a 22 of Ranger IPA), curious local business owners (a barber wandered over from Pennsylvania Avenue), they all commune here at some point.
“It seems to be a menu that really appeals to everyone,” Klein said. He billed the fare as “not your typical bar food,” stressing that they take pride in sweating the details, from the house-roasted turkey to the slow-cooked (five hours minimum) pastrami.
‘The Good Old Days’
That meticulousness pays off in spades in some of the more intricate arrangements. But we’ve also been underwhelmed by heavy-handed experiments gone awry.
Steamed mussels, for instance, are average at best, be they baptized in herb-white wine reduction, sprinkled with smoky bacon and piquant blue cheese or sunken into tomato coulis. No biggie, except Klein is a Brasserie Beck alumnus.
Heavy cream and assorted cheeses are essentially crutches for various pub standards, from the drowning in dairy croque monsieur to the one-note (Parmesan sauce easily overwhelms the caramelized onions) mushroom-cheese ravioli.
Chicken confit wings wowed several diners. The fat-packed meat was slide-off-the-bone succulent, its darkened skin concealing whispers of unexpected sweetness. Shredded duck confit (juicy, spiced meat) and vinegary pulled pork gussy up traditional quesadillas; Klein’s version binds the two marquee meats with hearty roasted red peppers, caramelized red onions and amazingly zesty guacamole.
Seafood lasagna had us praising Klein’s trusted fishmongers (who deliver four times per week); the artful dish layers snippets of salmon, shrimp and scallops between soft egg noodles, bathes everything in savory tomato sauce and crowns it all with bubbling mozzarella.
Roasted chicken breasts are voluminous but mostly muted. The real stars are the surrounding tarragon cream sauce, which complements the crisp French-style green beans and roasted baby carrots, and savory bread pudding forged from sliced mushrooms and diced carrots. While we enjoyed the double shot of vitamin K, may we suggest pairing the flavorful fungi with braised leeks or roasted squash instead?
Klein remains partial to the London broil meatloaf. “My grandmother made this meatloaf,” he said of the family recipe. “It just takes you back to the good old days of no responsibility, playing in the backyard and coming in to a home-cooked meal,” he said.
Boxcar’s meatloaf doesn’t feature traditional mashed potatoes but handmade croquettes Klein seeds with eggs, herbs and cheese, then breads and ultimately freezes before frying. The resulting dish is mouthwatering. The house-made loaf arrives embedded with mushrooms and onions, bathed in veal demi-glace (significantly ups the enjoyment ante) and is escorted by more carrots and the crispy potato puff.
Noteworthy closers appear to be Klein’s Achilles’ heel. He took full responsibility for the austere dessert carte — just apple crumb tart and vanilla crème brulee — but pledged that more fully developed options are on the way.
“I wanted to make sure I got the basics down first,” he asserted, floating a twist on the caramelized banana pancake they ply brunch patrons with on weekends as one potential addition.
224 Seventh St. SE; 202-544-0518; boxcardc.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.