One of his tales of endurance emerged late last year, when the hotel housing Schlow’s Italian-themed Casolare changed ownership and the new bosses invited the chef to envision a different dining experience. The result, Glover Park Grill, made its debut in November with Hamilton Johnson leading the kitchen. Johnson, who briefly cooked at the late Emilie’s on Capitol Hill, previously commandeered Honeysuckle downtown and, before that, the esteemed Southern sensation Vidalia. Chops ahoy, you could say.
No one perusing Johnson’s menu is likely to find surprises. There aren’t any. The list reads like a roll call of popular American dishes, from roast chicken to grilled steak. Familiar is not another word for Ambien, however, at least not at Glover Park Grill. The chef says he aspires to elevate the staples by making them “ours.”
Right off the bat, Johnson makes you glad you’re in his Grill. Potato-leek soup, sometimes a wallflower, turns into a talker at the table. Yes, you can taste potato and leeks, but the puree is more for the faint taste of apple and smoked trout in the bowl, its surface shimmering with dill oil. Steak tartare will remind me of 2020 long after the pandemic has passed, given its Fauci-esque ubiquity. Still, I continue to delight in the many versions I’ve sampled, including the one here, in which creamy lemon-kissed aioli and crisp fried panko carpet the ruddy chopped beef. The crab cake channels Vidalia with its jumbo lump Maryland seafood, minimally bound with saltines, mayonnaise and lemon juice and dressed with a garland of black-eyed peas, gigante beans and smoked bacon — my kind of border patrol.
In contrast, “spicy” deviled eggs crackle with fried sopressata, but they’re on the same frequency as many first-time Zoomers: mute. The promised heat is elusive.
Like a lot of their peers, Schlow and Johnson are big on testing what they’re selling in boxes. Not every dish passes muster. The saucy, super-crunchy chicken wings Johnson created early on were good at the source but went limp in transit. Order the appetizer now and you find wings improved by a hit of chilies and brown sugar and double roasting. Neat touch: lightly pickled celery, for extra tang, along with a crumble of blue cheese. Buffalo, you’ve been warned.
Schlow says Johnson’s “passion and compassion” were deciding factors in selecting him over other chefs who auditioned for the job. So was his “clean” cooking, says Schlow. “There was nothing superfluous on the plate.”
Johnson says, “It’s a challenge to do things simpler,” rather than hide behind a lot of bells and whistles.
The proof is in the eating. At Glover Park Grill, pasta means housemade cavatelli and sweet lump crab in a barge, er, bowl strewn with toasted breadcrumbs, lemon zest and parsley. The richness of the dish is tempered by some kick, from crushed red pepper. Braised short ribs come with escorts of parsnip puree and grilled carrots, their earthiness heightened with a drizzle of coffee oil.
See a pattern? While the food is familiar, it tends to come with a little something or other to make it stand out. Steak, cooked the color you specify, is richer for its brush with bearnaise butter, and shrimp and grits, one of Johnson’s prize dishes, shines in part because the shrimp is merely kissed by the heat of its pan. Roasted red peppers and an orange shellfish emulsion lend color to the classic, which is staged in a blue bowl for even more flourish. Are we tired of Brussels sprouts yet? I’m charmed to see them as they’re served here — sliced, fried, tossed with sherry vinegar — alongside an inches-thick pork chop near a swab of sweet potato puree.
The Grill’s wood-burning oven is a welcome hand-me-down from Casolare and a good excuse to try a margherita pizza. The crust makes a sturdy canvas for tangy San Marzano tomatoes, a mere veneer of mozzarella and bright basil. (Sharing Johnson’s workspace is Schlow’s ghost kitchen, Little Prince Pizza, selling the obvious pies, plus wings, sandwiches and salads.)
Alex Levin, executive pastry chef for the Schlow Restaurant Group, follows Johnson’s example. There’s nothing out of the ordinary on his dessert list — takeout chocolate chip cookies are as easy to find these days as masks — although every sweet is about as good as it gets. Schlow says he loved Levin’s cookies, save for the cake-y texture they developed after a day or so. The pastry chef turned the challenge into one of the city’s best cookies by doubling the chocolate, halving the flour and swapping dark brown sugar for white. The new! improved! recipe makes for saucer-size cookies that are crisp on the outside and chewy toward the center. And I love the faint crunch of sea salt flakes atop each round.
There’s more to explore: Bread pudding flavored with chocolate and banana and sweetened with caramel sauce. Cheesecake streaked with Levin’s not-too-sweet raspberry jam. A mountain of whipped cream hides ice cream veined with what tastes like fudge in a nutty sundae. Levin’s tiramisu, buzzy with espresso, would be at home at an Italian roost. Speaking of coffee, the grill is open in the morning for java, housemade bagels, croissants, ham-and-cheese danishes and more.
The owners of the Glover Park hotel are poised to renovate the entire property, dining room included. At present, I’m only eating outside, where a spacious deck adjacent to the restaurant has been outfitted with a turquoise bar, a fire pit in one corner and plastic tarp to ward off rain but allow for a breeze. By the end of March, roll-up canvas sides, replete with windows, will replace what now look like shower curtains.
Tables are draped with linens, warmed by overhead heaters and spaced with safety in mind. Best of all, they’re loaded with comforts encouraging you to return.
Glover Park Grill 2505 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-625-5400. gloverparkgrill.com. Open: Coffee and pastries daily 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner daily 5 to 9 p.m. Prices: Dinner appetizers $9 to $16, main courses $15 to $47. Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub, Toast and Uber Eats. Accessibility: Outside deck is fronted with stairs; an ADA-compliant restroom is off the hotel lobby.