Dining: Capitol Garage good; with a tune-up, could be great

07/18/2010 12:00 AM

08/13/2012 9:12 PM

When the owner of Capitol Garage contacted me to ask why his place had never been reviewed, I responded promptly: I just put you on the list, broheim.

Pardon the faux-hipster patois, but this is a happening, funky little restaurant, bar, music venue and people-watching box with a lid.

Given its midtown- downtown locale and a demographic that skews toward affable grunger, one might figure to be the only one without an arm's worth of ink, a medical certificate for the pot dispensary and the obligatory porkpie hat. Actually, the clientele is surprisingly diverse and everyone should feel welcome.

Originally a coffeehouse with live music and a few roll-ups masquerading as sandwiches, Capitol Garage moved down the street five years ago and decided to take things up a notch or 10.

The interior has a cool graffiti-and-mural décor that reflects its roots as a dive joint. But there's a serious chef in the kitchen.

I was already a fan of the new place – the range and quality of the menu, the mix of customers, the staff's friendly vibe. But that was as a regular customer. What would happen when I returned as a critic, my scowl at the ready and fussbudget ways on full alert?

Sunday rolls around, and I arrive unannounced, sit down, look around, order brunch and wait. And wait. Is the owner messing with me? Am I being punk'd? By the time our food arrived, I could have played nine holes of golf. Instead, 90 minutes passed, our waiter apologized for the delay 17 different ways, my tummy was gurgling over the music, my feet were numb, and the drunk girl at the bar had told us not once but twice that we made a cute couple.

One of us was getting loopy on the pretty decent bottomless mimosas ($4.95), and yours truly was enjoying surprisingly good coffee.

Yet I looked around and everyone seemed to embrace the relax-and-stay-awhile attitude. I took the cue.

At 28, executive chef Jon Clemons has a style still taking shape, but some clear themes run through his menu: Life is better with cheese, hollandaise sauce is next to godliness, subtlety is for chumps.

That food we waited for? Quite good. Clemons has 11 dishes on the brunch menu with poached eggs, and I had the Provençal ($14.95), brimming with flavors: smoked turkey breast on focaccia bread with grilled mushrooms, and a smoked tomato hollandaise.

The sweet potato hash ($12.95) was even better: grilled sweet potatoes mixed in with prosciutto and Gruyère, plus peppers and onions and, yes, toasted hazelnut hollandaise.

Throw in all-you-can- guzzle mimosas, and you're looking at about $20 to be fat and happy all Sunday.

We returned the next Sunday with a stopwatch. The food arrived 29 minutes after we ordered. I had the hangover hash ($15.95) with steak, potatoes, Gorgonzola and bacon. This is the same steak used in the excellent bistro salad ($12.95).

Sadly, on this morning, the beef was clearly not fresh and really should have left the kitchen through the back door. The bacon was thick and meaty, but you shouldn't have trophy bacon if it is precooked and left to sit in a tray. We were disappointed at the blandness of the potato stack ($11.95), even with the pesto sour cream.

The highs and lows tell me the menu needs cutting. Clemons is a talented and ambitious guy. But it takes discipline to come up with ideas, then give them the ax if they don't work. I would say one-third of the menu could be trimmed. That would make quality control easier, and the remaining dishes could get even better.

While Capitol Garage is busy for lunch (the leaky roof sandwich with turkey, bacon, Gruyère and sliced apples is rightly popular), dinner is when the kitchen shows its new attitude.

The history of this eatery goes back 18 years, to when Jerry Mitchell moved here from Southern California and promptly opened Capitol Garage at 15th and L streets. It was cool then, too, but the menu was about as limited as Sylvester Stallone's ability to emote.

When the Garage moved to 15th and K, Mitchell wanted to be better and more viable. So he hired Clemons, a culinary school graduate who learned French technique but hates to be confined by one approach.

Dinner here is part fine dining, part fun dining. We started with two excellent appetizers – pork sliders and French fries ($9.95), and a meatball pizza ($9.95) featuring delicious lamb and chorizo meatballs on flatbread.

When we pored over the entrees, we spotted salmon, trout, lamb and duck. Serious offerings. But too much? Maybe.

The salmon ($15.95) was so-so, mostly because the piece of fish didn't have enough flavor and was a bit overcooked. This dish simply needs better salmon. I did enjoy the goat cheese and small pieces of lobster claw meat on the plate. Again, get better asparagus or switch to a fresh, seasonal vegetable. Ours was big but bland, and a little tough.

The duck breast ($17.95) is a good value. It comes with grilled yams and a blackberry red wine sauce. It's a nice dish that could be improved with a more balanced sauce. It needed to be thicker, and the flavor was too much berry, not enough wine and butter.

The rack of lamb with brandy-flamed cherries ($17.95) is quite a bargain, and Capitol Garage pulls it off. We've had lamb at places like Boulevard Bistro or Moxie that was far superior, but this was a satisfying dish, and the mushroom ravioli was tasty.

Though Capitol Garage has a nice selection of drinks from the bar, much more emphasis could be placed on the wine list, which does not match up to the cooking.

Likewise, the service at the Garage is largely friendly, but there is room for improvement. The waiters should know the menu better, but with a gazillion items it's hard to blame them. When we asked what mushrooms were in the ravioli, for instance, our server responded, "That's a good question."

Being a cool, casual eatery and providing crisp, professional service is a daunting balancing act. At the Garage, you don't want to be stodgy, but you do need to be more efficient, authoritative and professional to enhance the dining experience.

If I were Mitchell, I would take the wait staff to dinner at Formoli's Bistro and watch that wonderful mix of casual, smart and professional perform at the highest level.

That said, Capitol Garage is a remarkable place in many ways. At night, dinner shifts to a venue for music around 9. Sunday is karaoke. There's even trivia and a movie on Mondays.

No other place in town seems to be trying to do as much. With a tighter focus on what it does best, a tweak or two of service and a paring-down of the menu, this place could become an even more appealing treasure.

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