It’s not just your imagination — Silver Spring does indeed keep getting better and better. And while most everyone knows about the lovingly restored AFI Silver Theatre there, the new Red Dog CafÃ©, which opened this past spring, is just waiting to be discovered.
While a bit off the beaten path, this smartly styled, canine-inspired eatery is John Emanuelson’s first foray into the restaurant world. Judging by the early results, it appears he and his partners, Greg Brunette and Claudia McLeod, did their homework very well and have weighed in with a solidly good addition to the metro cafÃ© scene.
With a yellow-tiled open kitchen along the side of the brightly painted dining area, the place has a spaciousness that belies its relatively small footprint. Red walls, brushed metal, and comfy banquettes make for a modern, inviting space without screaming its trendiness. Designer Brian Thornton, who oversaw the rebirth of the Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, worked his magic here on a smaller scale.
Starting with weekday breakfasts and continuing throughout the day, chef Janis McLean, an instructor at L’Academie de Cuisine, prepares a bountiful fare — all within view of her customers. Try a roasted vegetable frittata or one of several varieties of house-made muffins to get your day underway.
Later in the day salads, sandwiches, pizzas, appetizers and entrÃ©es prove irresistible temptations. A trio of “snackbreads” are fashioned from pizza dough and baked in the intensely hot pizza oven, giving them a fine crunchy crust. They’re topped with chicken and roasted radicchio, Italian sausage and red onions, and caramelized tomato and herbs respectively, and all are wonderful.
Asparagus soup desperately needs salt and a bit more of the herbed cream promised on the menu. Far better is a starter of goat cheese baked in caramelized tomato sauce with garlic focaccia wedges.
A salad of hearty greens with “pulled” braised duck could not have been better. Adorned with applewood-smoked bacon, roasted grapes and port vinaigrette, this easily serves as an entire meal.
Like the snackbreads, pizzas crusts here are remarkably crispy and accomplished. This may just be the best pizza I’ve had anywhere in this city. My favorite topping combo is wild mushroom with roasted red peppers, caramelized shallots, smoked Gouda and mozzarella. Or you can build your own creation from a list of over a dozen toppings.
There’s an impressive assortment of freshly-made specialty fruit and vegetable juices available all throughout the day. Lemonade, made with lemons and apples, is an enjoyable variation on an old favorite. You’re welcome to create your own combinations of juices to fit your particular tastes.
A short list of entrÃ©es is available after 5 p.m. daily and there’s usually an interesting daily special as well. “Chicken Under a Brick” earns its lovely crispy skin and moist interior when it’s baked in the wood-burning oven while topped, Tuscan style, with a hot brick. As with all entrÃ©es, diners have a choice of side dishes including herb-roasted potatoes, house salad or coleslaw.
Not to be missed is Red Dog’s signature dish, wood-fired salmon filet baked on a cedar plank. This is the way I’ve often seen salmon prepared in the Pacific Northwest and the process loses nothing by its geographic relocation. It’s moist, tender and obviously fresh.
Desserts are a mixture of house-made and outsourced creations. Baby bundt cakes from Just Cakes in Bethesda are offered in chocolate, lime or coconut and enhanced by a sauce appropriate to each. The mango sauce accompanying the coconut cake is a particularly fine combination.
It’s odd to find a bread pudding without enough bread, but the one here is so eggy it begs for a little more substance. Far better is the warm apple crisp, remarkable for the restrained use of sugar and for its crispiness.
If you’re lucky you’ll get to meet Madison, the 2-year-old golden retriever belonging to Emanuelson, who sometimes visits. But even if Madison isn’t there, your pooch is welcome to cool his heels outside. (Hey, this isn’t France.) You’ll get the better deal sitting inside enjoying wonderful food at very reasonable prices. Just maybe you’ll have something left for a doggie bag.