Hot Plate: H Street Gets a Seaside-Style Haven, Plus Pizza

Posted May 19, 2010 at 5:34pm

The Liberty Tree, a small New England-style seafood and pizza joint that recently opened on H Street Northeast, at first seems confused. Pizza and seafood?

But it turns out that the new spot is a nice change of pace from the rest of the Atlas District. While many of the establishments in that part of town are over-the-top gimmicky and kitschy, the Liberty Tree is a calm alternative — think less hipster paradise, more seaside haven.

The opening of the tiny restaurant — it seats only 38 — adds to the evolution of the H Street corridor from a dodgy part of town peppered with takeout joints to a burgeoning dining scene. Last year, Granville Moore’s (1238 H St. NE) got national attention when executive chef Teddy Folkman appeared on the TV show “The Next Food Network Star,” and since opening in 2008, Sticky Rice (1224 H St. NE) has been booking reservations weeks in advance. A longtime resident of the Atlas District, Scott Hamilton noticed this trend toward more serious food-focused restaurants and decided last summer to open the Liberty Tree. After a year of planning, the restaurant opened its doors earlier this spring.

There seems to be an unwritten rule that no bar or restaurant on H Street can be without a theme. Liberty Tree (1016 H St. NE) is no exception, although it doesn’t take the theme concept to the same level as, say, H Street Country Club. Hamilton, owner of Hamilton’s Bar and Grill (233 Second St. NW) and a Massachusetts native, spent months searching eBay and yard sales in search of relics of our nation’s past. The result is a smattering of newspaper clips dating back to 1807 (one, for instance, features an advertisement for Paul Revere’s business), yellowed historical documents with various lines crossed out in the editing process and flags touting mottos such as “don’t tread on me.” Hamilton says that half the objects on the wall are authentic artifacts; the other half are replicas.

In keeping with the New England theme, the menu is filled with affordable (almost all dishes cost less than $20) seafood dishes that hail from the region. Of course, New England clam chowder is on the menu, as is a flavorful lobster roll. The chowder is light and creamy, while the lobster roll is perfect. The roll glistens with butter, but the mayonnaise is used sparingly, making the lobster taste that much more delicious.

But not all dishes are hits. The lobster and scallop potpie — a combination of the shellfish, peas, carrots, pearl onions and sherry cream in the traditional puff pastry — lacked any sort of herb or spice. A rigatoni dish with bacon, peas, pecorino Romano cheese and sun-dried tomato cream was terribly salty.

Pizza is also a focus at Liberty Tree. Hamilton says he chose to add pies to the menu because he was uncertain that the neighborhood would embrace a seafood restaurant. He also knew chef Graig Glufling, formerly of Matchbox, was an expert when it comes to pizza.

Standard pies such as the margherita, veggie and cheese are offered, as are a few specialty pizzas. The Godfather was disappointing. Unfortunately, the pies here are fairly generic. With toppings such as mozzarella, smoked Gouda, bacon and spicy meatballs, one would expect the dish to be rich with flavor, but the dough was soaked with sauce, masking the other ingredients and detracting from the pie. The Cape Cod Casino is the best one on the menu. This savory pizza is made of clams, roasted garlic, bacon, spinach, herb butter and pecorino Romano cheese. It burst with flavor without tasting fishy.

The service at Liberty Tree is touch-and-go. While the wait staff is unfailingly polite and friendly, it seems perpetually swamped. There often appeared to be one server for the whole dining room, which slowed down the meal considerably. It became necessary to flag down the server to place an order or ask for the check.

Despite all of this, the Liberty Tree is still a pleasant and enjoyable dining experience. The restaurant is good for families, a date or just a quick dinner with friends. And with the promise of outdoor patio seating opening later this summer, the Liberty Tree will be able to help twice as many people satiate their seafood cravings.