Grapeseed Bistro & Wine Bar, Bethesda

On Friday evening, I *finally* got out to one of Grapeseed’s Friday-night Dinners, a multi-course menu that, in this case, coincided with their 16th anniversary – it was a “Best Of,” four-course, prix-fixe menu for $45 ($11.25 per course). Chef-owner-star-athlete Jeff Heineman often gives members of a meaninful discount when attending these meals – all you have to do is join, and it doesn’t cost you a dime to do so.

After having a seat at the bar, I wound down with a happy-hour $5 wine: an Adras Godello – Grapeseed offers a select group of wines (decent wines) which are five dollars for a generous glass from 5-7 PM.

This, before finding out that Scott Johnston had bought me, as a gift, the wine pairing to go with the tasting menu (thank you, Scott!), so I had plenty to drink with my meal for the entire evening. That’s the type of warm, friendly nature that Jeff Heineman helps to foster on – although I could hardly conceal the joy on my face when I found what Scott had done for me, it didn’t surprise me one bit. That’s the way the website is with each of its members, and the only way for you to really know is to join and find out for yourselves. I always tell people to write me if there’s a problem, and in eleven years, there have been almost no letters in my mailbox, other than ones lauding the community for being so knowledgeable and kind, and the discussion on such a consistently high level.

And so, the tasting menu it was, and I was starving because I hadn’t eaten all day. Grapeseed’s four-course Friday-night Dinners are a steal, and if you haven’t tried them, you’ve really missed out. For many years, I’ve had two restaurants – Passage to India and Grapeseed – ranked #1 and #2 in Bethesda in the Maryland Dining Guide, and have been unwavering in my support of them; yet, their reputation among DC-area food lovers are just not very high, similar to nearly every other restaurant from the Maryland suburbs with the possible exception of some Chinese restaurants in Rockville, and some informal, inexpensive mom-n-pops in Beltsville; regardless of the reasons, I can say with great confidence that these two are among the very best restaurants in Montgomery County, and the Friday-night prix-fixe dinners are an inexpensive way to familiarize yourself with the caring, family-run atmosphere of Grapeseed, at nearly Restaurant Week pricing – this, with more food, and better food.

After relaxing with my Godello (and to tell you the truth, I have not found one single Godello that even remotely resembles the glorious wines that I had in Galicia, Spain in 2007 when I traveled over there with Gerry Dawes, visiting winery-after-winery. The curmudgeonly Gerry is the world’s leading authority on Spanish food and wine who lives outside of Spain, and if you think that hyperbolic accolade sounds impossible, you simply haven’t yet met Gerry – the man knows *everything*, as he has made the county and its culture his only purpose in life. If you want a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Spain, and don’t mind paying real money for his expertise, I would urge you to at least contact him – tell him you’re a friend of mine, and see what he has to say.

I began my meal with a Peruvian dish: Peruvian Causa (a potato-based dish), with House Made Ossabaw Prosciutto (aging for two years), avocado, and crab. At an average of $11.25 per dish, you wouldn’t expect the first course to be so bulky, but the potatoes allow it to contain some heft while judicious portions of the Prosciutto and crab act as flavoring agents more than primary ingredients. Grapeseed seems to lack a full-time saucier to integrate the dishes, so my one knock on the restaurant is that certain things are “ingredient-driven” and combinatorial rather than they are down the street at Passage to India, where saucing and long-cooking are two integral components – two such very different restaurants, both wonderful in their own way. My first “tasting wine” (technically a three-ounce pour; in reality more like four, which often happens here with diners) was a Galerie Sauvignon Blanc, much more pungent, and with better supporting acidity, than a typical Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which tend to be flabby and put their hot climate on full display; not here. Look for this wine on their menu when you order, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised – I, myself, was silently thanking Scott Johnston, and I still had three wines remaining (the price of a wine tasting to accompany the meal is something of a pittance: $20)

Next up was a wonderful piece of Black Sea Bass with Bouillabaisse sauce. I hadn’t glanced at the menu, but noticed a roux-like substance on one of the crostini, mentioning that they must be trying to imitate Bouillabaisse Marseillaise, and sure enough they were. This dish was halfway between a fish dish with sauce (it was, after all, a good-sized portion of black sea bass), and a bouillabaisse (as it was served atop a hot broth, almost making it into a soup should the diner wish to cut their fish). After taking a tiny nibble of each ingredient, I mixed everything together with gusto – exercising caution not to cut up my fish in order to keep it warm, deciding instead to cut-and-soak each individual bite as I went along. The wine was a Genio Espagnol Monastrell Rosado which went perfectly with the seemingly sriracha-flavored aïoli substituting for a true roux.

The crescendo continued with an Elephant Trunk Sea Scallop, with lobster mashed potatoes, and pine-nut lemon vinaigrette – the lobster mashed potatoes being the star of the show here, as there was a hefty portion of lobster in the mashed potatoes – I was surprised to receive only one small scallop until I realized the generous portion of lobster meat, and think this dish could have tolerated a second scallop, but again, after reminding myself that these averaged $11.25 per dish, there was no legitimate complaint I could register, especially after seeing the potatoes. Pairing with this was a Two Sisters Chardonnay – a $50+ bottle at retail which amplified the butter in both the potatoes and the vinaigrette. The wine alone was worth close to the price of the dish.

Finally, Duck Confit with House Made Gnocchi, Tomato Jam, and Ramp Butter, served with a Lake Chalice Pinot Noir which is one flavor I had been missing all evening – a fruit-driven Pinot Noir from New Zealand that turned a white-wine meal into a red-wine finish. I made sure to save half my wine for the dessert which I knew I was coming, and would put as an extra charge on my bill: Chocolate Crẽmeux (I’m a sucker for red wine with chocolate, three mounds of mousse-like chocolate drizzled with salted caramel and devil’s food crumb – this could have tolerated (perhaps even benefitted from) a darker red, but also went just fine with my New Zealand Pinot Noir.

Thanks especially to Scott Johnston, the bill for this meal was somewhat ridiculous, and if you’ve missed out on Grapeseed’s Friday Night tastings, you’ve been doing yourselves a disservice. Go, and go at your first opportunity – coupled with their bar happy hour which runs from 5-7, you can eat here like a king at a pauper’s ransom, especially if you start early.

Grapeseed is not a fancy restaurant in the least – it’s a neighborhood tavern where people are welcome in t-shirts and jeans, and has been serving this level of food for sixteen full years – it is one of Bethesda’s great culinary treasures: a Cheers-like bar where people remember your name on your second visit, and where you always leave feeling satisfied, and wondering if you’re sure you paid enough for your meal, especially if you got one of these Friday-night specials. What an exemplary neighborhood restaurant this is!

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