There are dishes so familiar and beloved in this part of the country — pierogies, pot roast, mac and cheese — that they've become icons, evoking memories of home-cooked meals and comfort foods. You'll find all three of these hearty Midwestern classics, along with other regional favorites, on the menu at Washington Place Bistro, albeit prepared with more skill and style than the average mom. These plates are indicative of the restaurant's attitude and the kind of dining experience it aims to deliver.
Scott Kuhn, a trained chef and a serial restaurateur (this is his fourth eatery), made over the former Baricelli Inn late last year, adding a handsome bar and lounge and updating the decor. His concept offers simple American food done better. He and executive chef Jonathan Guest are a tag team, brainstorming seasonal menu ideas and testing recipes together. But Guest is responsible for the made better part. The young chef, who worked with Kuhn for three years at 87 West at Crocker Park, brings a devotion to scratch cooking, labor-intensive techniques and some clever culinary thinking to the job.
In his hands, meatloaf ($16.50) goes from mundane to memorable. He starts by roasting mushrooms from local Killbuck Valley Mushrooms and drawing out the liquid. Combined with ground veal and baked, they plump up and absorb the meat juices, adding a dense chewiness and intensifying the flavor. Forget about ketchup. Guest finishes the dish with thick, savory tomato gravy.
The truffled potato pierogi ($13.50) are from Ohio City Pasta, and they're good to go on their own. But Guest's rich oxtail ragout, made with his own veal stock (the pro's essential ingredient), and horseradish creme fraiche take this starter to a higher level of wonderful. Another appetizer worth a try is shrimp and cheesy grits ($11.50). This stands out compared to other versions of the Low Country staple thanks to the addition of crisped crumbles of chorizo sausage and a splash of nutty beer blanc, a play on the traditional white butter (beurre) sauce. I was happy to hear an entree version of the appetizer may soon end up on the menu.
Those crispy bits of sausage also show up in the Mack & Cheese ($13.50/$18.50), an appealingly gooey combination of heavy cream, manchego, Parmesan and tangy Mackenzie chevre. Tomato paste lends an orange color to the mix, reminiscent of the boxed version, and a welcome touch of acidity. The flaky little triangles of goat cheese strudel that sit on top provide a pleasant contrasting crunch. Still, I'm not so crazy about the micro greens garnish, which seems a bit overused on plates here.
The beet salad ($9) demonstrates just how the kitchen builds a unique dish from common components. Three varieties of the root vegetable — bulls blood, golden and candy stripe — are slow-roasted. Some are sliced carpaccio thin and fanned out on the bottom of a bowl. For the next layer, others are diced and tossed with micro salad, slivered fennel and red onions. Matchsticks of raw beets are heaped on top. Taking a novel approach to bringing goat cheese into the mix, it's blended into a creamy ranch dressing.
There were some hits and misses among the entrees and sides. Although I found the cider-brined pork chop ($19) overly salty, the accompanying jalapeno and scallion spoon bread was a treat. True to its roots, this had the consistency of pudding and a touch of sweetness.
A tender hangar steak ($19.50), done rare as requested, got a boost with a drizzle of blue cheese butter sauce, and I loved the malt vinegar aioli on the fries.
A chicken roulade special ($16) felt like a work in progress. The chicken and shiitake mousse filling was just right, but the exterior needed some color and snap. When mentioned to Guest, he agreed, saying in the next iteration of the dish he'd use a skin-on airline breast with a nice browning on it. The spring pea flan and bright green pea butter were very nice touches.
Food and service on a busy Saturday night were all they should be. But something was off during a quiet Sunday evening when neither the owner nor Guest were on premise. Tepid food, uneven pacing and a sluggish, morose server put a dimmer on our outing. Maybe they field the B team in this time slot, but staff should be on their game whenever customers are there. And unlike its predecessor, the restaurant is now open seven days a week offering lunch, dinner, later bar hours and Sunday brunch.
Expect an expanded menu come summer with some lighter dishes and more vegetarian options. The warm weather also means the patio, outfitted with new furniture, will be available. Kuhn says they'll be changing up desserts too, but Presti's glazed donut bread pudding ($6) is so popular it will remain a permanent fixture. It's his personal creation and a nod to the bakery that is a neighborhood institution. This is a great way to end a meal and a story about a place that celebrates hometown cuisine.