Food, Wine & Co.: Chef Buffa, Good food is good food


October 29, 2010
Alex Barron
Restaurant Critic
Bon Appetit

*Photos courtesy of Rachel Lincoln

Maybe it’s the recently crisper weather that’s starting to creep into every sensation I have, but to me, Bethesda’s classy new bistro, Food, Wine & Co., feels like fall.  The colors inside the restaurant are a cornucopia of light browns, dark browns and one particular shade of yellow, which is the exactwarm shade of my mother’s butternut squash soup.  (Incidentally, to me, the soup is synonymous with the comforts of autumn.) The interior of the restaurant is a comfortable space that seems more living room than dining room.  It has at its center an antique clock that serves as the restaurant’s iconic postcard image.

Pulling the culinary strings in the kitchen is Northern Italian chef Paolo Buffa, formerly of Bethesda’s Bice and Manhattan’s Salute. But make no mistake, although pizza and pasta are safe bets at Food, Wine & Co., dinner is a distinctlyAmerican experience, thanks in part to Buffa’s willingness to tailor his cooking style to the occasion. “I have to be a little less Italian,” says the chef, without a trace of complaint. “But good food is good food – no matter what you do. In Italy, we eat more burgers than pasta anyway,” he quips.

Food, Wine & Co. makes no secret of what it quite justifiably considers to be its greatest strengths. Its formidable collection of beers and wines is displayed on shelves behind the bar much in the same way classic books are arranged in an intellectual’s study. Its cheeses inhabit an island at the center of the room where they sit in glass display platters, more or less beckoning patrons. They are, both figuratively and literally, the centerpiece of the restaurant. The menu offers six meats and six cheeses, all of which can be mixed and matched at the diner’s discretion. (Choose any 3 for $14 and any 5 for $18) Served with crackers, pate and a sweet plum sauce, these platters are a rare treat for the DC area. “Nobody else has our cheeses,” boasts Buffa.

Oyster platters (6 for $14 and 12 for $22) are another strong entrée in the appetizer section of the menu. Served with three different sauces (wasabi, cucumber and raspberry), they taste as fresh as their Chesapeake Bay origins would suggest. Other options include:  an Ahi Tuna Salad ($15), which comes with several generous pieces of the succulent sesame-glazed raw fish and a Sweet Corn Chowder ($6), dotted with several roasted kernels fresh off the stalk.

Mussels are listed on the menu next to the “Starters” section, which might lead one to expect an insubstantial pot. Instead, mussels come out of the kitchen in dramatic fashion; served in large, steaming cauldrons, they are reminiscent of paella without the rest of the seafood. The Island Mussels ($18) turn what seems to be an unlikely combination of ingredients (spicy chorizo, coconut milk curry, cilantro and yellow tomatoes) into an adventurous and satisfying dish. An order of hand cut fries, served with a creamy aioli sauce, is included, which makes any of the mussel dishes a full meal in its own right. Lovers of more traditional entrees may prefer the Pan Seared Salmon ($22), which mixes Asian flavors (baby bok choi) with American BBQ (the sour orange glaze). The Ribeye Steak ($24), served with asparagus, mushrooms, and several extremely juicy, flavorful potatoes is also a winner.

At the center of the experience is Buffa himself, who leaves his stamp on the restaurant in every way. A well-traveled cosmopolitan, he has been influenced by culinary not only with regards to his Northern Italian heritage, but also by extended stays in Peru, New York, Washington, DC and Miami. It was in the last of these three cities that Buffa met, and subsequently became the personal chef to, fashion designer Gianni Versace. On July 15, 1997, Buffa was — he contends — the last person to see the renowned designer alive before he was randomly murdered by serial killer Andrew Cunanan. “It was late at night and I had made for him the cured beef with arugula and Parmesan cheese. I went to sleep and woke up the next morning at 8:45, and…”  Not only did the murder devastate the fashion industry with the loss of Versace, but Buffa insists that Cunanan brought about a shocking and random change to his life, as well.

It may be the antique clock, or the iron railings on the second deck that seem to evoke a Mediterranean balcony that further strengthens the positive consensus on Food, Wine & Co.  Or it may simply be the diversity of ingredients in the dishes – from jalapeno to mascarpone to wasabi – but something about Food, Wine & Co. suggests that it represents the culminating efforts of a seasoned chef and a prolific traveler. With no disrespect to the Pizzeria Uno it recently replaced, but it is now fair to say that this highly coveted spot next to the Regal movie theater has an extra touch of class and worldliness that was not there previously.


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