- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Buck’s Fishing & Camping sounds like a deer camp down on Bayou Bartholomew. There’s a whole wood-grilled fish on the menu, and the decor is faintly reminiscent of a campsite. The name is a bit of whimsy, but what a campsite.

The restaurant, on upper Connecticut Avenue, a few doors south of the intersection with Nebraska Avenue, is both beautiful and cozy. The camping touches are lots of wood, glass lanterns, an upside-down aluminum boat on the rafters and a stunning long plank table down the center of the room. No bugs or snakes.

The long table seats up to 25 guests. The glossy plank is a single slice of a 1,000-year-old poplar tree that chef and co-owner Carole Greenwood picked out herself in the Carolinas. When the restaurant is full, there’s a genuine “camping” atmosphere as guests sit shoulder to shoulder with strangers.

Tables for four are arranged along the side of the room. One wall is deep red and adorned with glass lamps; several beautiful impressionistic photographs line one wall behind the bar.

Ms. Greenwood prides herself on the freshness of the ingredients she uses in her cooking, and it shows. The menu isn’t long — starters and main courses number about a half dozen each, with two or three desserts — but it’s varied and interesting, and everything looks and tastes good. A dish or two changes daily and the entire menu will change with the seasons. There’s an imaginative mix of winter vegetables and solid rib-sticking main courses at present.

We started a recent dinner with a fragrant salad of fresh mozzarella with roasted beets, a slice of roasted fennel and a vinaigrette incorporating sun-dried tomato pesto and crushed nuts. The portion was small — two tiny beets, a slice of fennel, a few greens and a little cheese — but it was a perfect “salade compose.” The flavors complemented one another, and the touch of pesto lifted what could have been a bland salad into a sophisticated appetizer.

Retro-trendy iceberg wedges with blue cheese succeeds, too. Chef Greenwood’s dressing is a creamy sauce with slices of blue cheese on the side; the lettuce is sprinkled with bits of bacon.

Spicy quail with pear-rhubarb chutney isn’t really spicy, and cauliflower gratin, delicious as it is, is more a vegetable to accompany a main course than a starter. It comes served in a tin bowl, as it would at a deer camp.

While starters are small, main courses are substantial, especially the wonderful prime sirloin steak. It’s huge and easily could be shared by two. It’s tender and full of flavor, with a wonderful savory crust. Unfortunately, the accompanying mashed sweet potatoes and greens had to be scraped off the top of the steak. Why, oh why, do chefs pile one ingredient of a dish on top of another? This is a whim past its prime.

Mash-and-smash may look pretty to a chef’s eye, but it’s difficult for the diner and sometimes — as in this case — spoils the impact of the meat. Once liberated, however, the steak ranks among Washington’s best.

Steak and fish are campsite regulars, and the fish at Buck’s is a whole branzino (sea bass) imported fresh from Italy every day. It’s grilled over a wood fire and served on the bone with a fennel-lemon salad.

Another superb main course is the Buck’s shrimp and grits. Three nice-size shrimp, fresh from the waters of the Atlantic, are served, head and tail still on, on a bed of creamy, cheesy, delicious grits. If you prefer not to decapitate the shrimp yourself, the kitchen will do it for you, but the dish isn’t as spectacular without those beady little black eyes and wispy feelers. In this era of frozen shrimp, it’s sometimes difficult to remember how good the fresh ones are, and these are perfect — so good one wishes the plate had a few more.

A plump, juicy, crusty pork chop with roasted sweet potatoes, a barbecued duck leg and a bratwurst with crispy potatoes, or perhaps osso bucco, round out the menu.

There’s a choice of desserts, beginning with caramel custard or chocolate “sheath” cake. The “sheath” is actually a sheet cake, but not the kind you get at office or children’s birthday parties. This one is a rich dark chocolate cake with excellent icing. The kitchen was out of a third dessert, a strawberry rhubarb tart, by 7:30 in the evening.

Which leads to the problem with Buck’s. There’s an eccentricity to the kitchen that makes dining there a bit of a roulette game. If you ask what the hours are, you are told usually from 5 to 10 p.m. but warned that if you come late, there may be little choice. If there’s no food left or no clients, the restaurant closes early. The bar, which usually stays open until 10:30, may close earlier, “depending.” If you want to dine during the nursing-home hours between 5 and 6:30, chances are that everything will be available. Late diners may be out of luck. Buck’s is good enough to test its customers’ patience.

Several pleasant wines from lesser-known foreign vineyards are available by the glass, and service is willing and attentive. The good country bread comes from Lyon Bakery, a new French bakery in Southwest Washington. The camping-and-fishing theme pushes it with little foil-wrapped butter pads.

Buck’s is a comfortable restaurant that serves unique, high-style food. Its whimsical nature is well-expressed in a line from Oscar Wilde that graces the menu: “Nature is a damp place over which large numbers of ducks fly, uncooked.” You won’t regret trying them cooked at Buck’s.

RESTAURANT: Buck’s Fishing & Camping, 5031 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/364-0777.

HOURS: Tuesday through Saturday 5 to 10 p.m. (most of the time), Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. (usually). Closed Monday.

PRICES: Appetizers $5.10 to $8.60; main courses $15 to $19 ($32.20 for the steak); desserts $5.60

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Parking lot behind the restaurant; street parking after 6:30 p.m.

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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