Chow, Baby: Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Welcome Back, Olenjack

Yay, the long-awaited opening-night dinner at Olenjack’s Grille in Lincoln Square, Arlington. On the way over, Chow, Baby rehearsed some fairness principles: This isn’t the Chisholm Club. Yes, Brian Olenjack was executive chef at the Chisholm Club, which since its 2005 death has assumed god-like status in Chow, Baby’s mind, but this is a new venture and must be judged on its own merits. For one, it’s a grill(e), not a steakhouse — don’t expect a resurrection of the greatest rib-eye ever: dry-aged, thick, juicy, edge-seared, yum. Whole new deal here. Got it. So Chow, Baby glances at Olenjack’s menu and — wow, there’s the exact last supper it had at the Chisholm Club! Cornmeal-crusted oysters ($9); mixed-greens salad with those candied pecans ($4); grilled ribeye (with two sides, $24); and the famous trio of crème brûlées ($8). It’s got to be just the same, right?

Let’s get the crushing disappointment out of the way. Of course for that price (a third less than the Chisholm Club’s), Chow, Baby wasn’t expecting rib-eye perfection — it was thinking maybe a smaller portion of rib-eye perfection. But what the hell was Chef Brian thinking, serving up a thin, juice-free, chew-each-bite-forever thing like you’d get at a “family” steakhouse? Not to make too big a deal out of it — as if Chow, Baby ever does that, particularly regarding rib-eyes — but they ought to suspend his Texas-chef license for this. Crispy chile’d red-onion strings and nicely roasted asparagus were just like the olden days, though this was small consolation. Chow, Baby’s lower lip eventually stopped trembling enough to permit nibbling from the companions’ entrées, which were marvelous: Shrimp and grits ($16) and striped bass ($19) were perfectly cooked and inventively sauced and sided, with all top-quality ingredients. It wasn’t fair.

Back to the beginning, which was fabulous: We renamed one appetizer “kobe quail” ($11) because the cumin-roasted meat was so incredibly sweet and tender, perfectly paired with a ragout of smoky pinto beans. Grilled shrimp ($9) glazed with tequila and brown sugar were another stand-out, matched with a sweet-crunchy jicama relish. Mid-menu took a little dip, though: Chow, Baby was a little put out that its salad’s candied pecans were in crumbs rather than the Chisholm Club’s perfect halves, and more so because the tomato-vinaigrette deluge drowned any other taste. A chopped salad ($4), very pretty with bacon and cucumber, was similarly overwhelmed with too-spicy Russian dressing. The “ultimate grilled cheese sandwich” ($7) — American, gruyere, and fontina — was surprisingly boring; we expected some wow from Chef Brian. Maybe a fancy blue cheese. Something.

Bright notes included a great wine list with helpful bartenders; a sleek, modern décor whose minimalism amplified the crowd noise (that one’s not really a bright note); and a witty actor/waiter who took care to alert us to kitchen delays (understandable on opening night). And presentation was four-star: salads in chilled stainless-steel bowls, cornmeal-crusted oysters served in individual porcelain spoons, all plates arranged just so. The crème brûlées were gorgeous to behold and lovely in the mouth: one classically light and sweet, one bursting with cinnamon, the third a burnt chocolate pudding. Three more points of food brilliance, indeed. Even after that ... that thing, Chow, Baby has utmost confidence in Brian Olenjack’s culinary brilliance, and trusts that, after some tweaking, Olenjack’s Grille will be uniformly great.

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