Bluegrass foodies wept when Midway's Black Tulip closed. Eager anticipation awaited the restaurant's new Lexington digs: in the old A.P. Roots space, whose dark interior with limited natural lighting always shocks me after the sunny patio's lush wildflowers and hedges.
Along with a new address comes a new menu, more American than its continental-style predecessor. It is a hybrid of bar and bistro fare, with results running the gamut from stellar to so-so. For instance, some items — such as a side dish of green onion risotto, savory and tenderly al dente — uphold the fine dining standard, whereas others, such as the simple potato soup, are so one-dimensional that the best descriptor is "beige."
Starting with some starters, fries here are always delicious, crisp and not greasy, piping hot and soft in the middle, whether tossed in simple salt or with Cajun seasoning. An appetizer of short ribs jazzes up plain old ribs with a beefy reduction, but the accompanying jicama slaw was mostly shredded cabbage with tame horseradish dressing. Rich she-crab dip with bubbling hot cheese is a creamy, if heavy, treat but would have been better with toast points than with water crackers. For a lighter but equally satisfying beginning, try the croquettes, a reinvented "loaded" potato with green onions, cheese, bacon and crème fraiche dipping sauce.
The dish of succulent Prince Edward Island mussels in a light garlic and anise cream is so large, it could be an appetizer for two or a main course by itself. You will need more than one basket of bread to sop up all the delicious sauce.
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Tulip serves three nice salads. The house salad has a great bacon vinaigrette that doesn't turn the fresh greens soggy. Another features frisée — curly, crunchy, slightly bitter lettuce — drizzled with a simple basil oil and a scattering of sweet grilled shrimp. The untraditional and hearty Caesar salad underscores the art of presentation: whole romaine leaves are "held together" with thinly sliced rounds of red onion, then garnished with hard-boiled eggs, crunchy croutons and anchovies.
Sandwiches range from classic to creative. Cheeseburgers hit the sweet spot by merging the simple and the sophisticated, replacing cheddar with Gouda and substituting ham with prosciutto. The oyster po' boy, in spite of its spicy remoulade sauce and succulent oysters, was less impressive because the breading had the texture of dried crackers.
The entrees are best when closest to basics. I liked the chicken roulade — white meat rolled with prosciutto — and especially its marsala demi-glace. But I really couldn't get enough of the simple but splendid black grouper, flaky, delicate and tasting ocean-fresh, or of the perfectly prepared sides, like emerald haricots verts, asparagus spears and buttery smooth mashed potatoes.
The tuile dessert is an uncomplicated but grand finale. The tuile — a paper-thin, crisp sugar cookie — is shaped into a cup, then filled with fresh whipped cream, and strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, each one of maximum ripeness.
In its short four months of existence, it seems that the Tulip has become a neighborhood spot, in easy walking distance of Chevy Chase residents. But the parking lot seems fuller every time I visit, suggesting that if Lexingtonians were willing to travel to Midway, the drive to Romany Road to experience chef Spencer van den Dool's creativity is a no-brainer.