The Liberty Tavern, Clarendon

This is the first full meal I’ve had at The Liberty Tavern since Chef de Cuisine Miljohn Dimaano replaced Liam LaCivita (Matt Hill, who recently left Range, has assumed the Executive Chef role for this restaurant group – which includes Northside Social and Lyon Hall – and is overseeing all three restaurants).

There was only one seat open at the always-deafening bar, and my extremely chatty bartender (mostly chatting with two young women to my left) finally got around to taking my drink order for a draft of Legend Brown Ale ($6), brewed by Legend Brewing Company in Richmond, VA.

I wanted something other than pizza, or charcuterie, or cheese, just to see what this kitchen is capable of putting out right now. So I got the Whole Salt-Roasted Branzino ($20.95) with saffron fregola, vegetables “a la greque,” and preserved lemon zabaglione. Despite the rather complex description, this dish was quite straightforward, the medium-sized fish obviously taking center stage, and not crusted in salt as much as I thought it might be. The fregola was a bit bland, and could have used some salt-overflow from the fish, but the vegetables were just about perfect – right at the level of doneness that makes them “cooked, but not cooked to death” – and the small dab of zabaglione lent a touch of sweetness to this somewhat neutral dish (I actually did put a bit of salt on my fregola, but the fish itself (which is obviously the most important part of the entree) was just fine.)

Finding a whole fish at The Liberty Tavern for $20.95 was a pleasant surprise, especially considering it was part of a composed plate. Five years ago, branzino was something of a luxury item; no longer – it’s certainly not tilapia, but it’s no longer the rarity it once was in these parts. The Liberty Tavern did a nice, if unspectacular, job with this dish, and it’s one that I can softly recommend. I’m pretty sure that only a small minority of downstairs customers get a dish such as this, and so it’s even more important that The Liberty Tavern gets the basics right – pizza, their burger, etc. The next time I have dinner downstairs, I’ll try something a bit more typical, fully expecting this surprisingly resilient restaurant to come through, just as it always has.

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