It’s hard to say if The Family Wash is technically a “gastropub,” or if it’s a just a bar with a hopped-up menu several steps above burgers and fries. Coined in London in the early ’90s to describe a new breed of public house that paid as much attention to food as to booze, the trendy term at its most orthodox implies a dining repertoire on par with some of the finest restaurants. On the west side of the Atlantic and the east side of the Cumberland, Family Wash makes no pretense to being a fine-dining establishment, so maybe the title of gastropub is too ambitious. But culinary semantics aside, if you invited some friends ’round and fed them Szechwan cold noodle salad or garlic-lemon shrimp pasta similar to that coming out of Family Wash’s Lilliputian kitchen, your grateful guests might think you were indeed a gastro-stud.
Thinking of the Family Wash in such homey terms helps explain why Jamie Rubin’s five-year-old restaurant is packed with a chummy crowd of regulars lining up for hearty, fresh meals at the boldly painted former Laundromat. Dining at Family Wash is like gathering with a bunch of friends who all simultaneously threw in the kitchen towel and decided that, rather than eat cereal at the kitchen sink for yet another night, they’d stroll down the block and grab a pie and a pint for 10 bucks with their neighbors. The tiny, nonsmoking dining room buzzes with music talk, neighborhood gossip and sometimes even little kids. (On one of our visits, we overheard people rehashing the Scene’s recent cover story about the growing dichotomy between East Side residents and Westies.)
Around 9 p.m., the music starts, which often means that some talented friend of Rubin’s—either from here or just passing through—is taking the stage at what has evolved into a low-key live-music landmark.
Meanwhile, the menu at Family Wash has evolved since the early days when Rubin and co-founder Fred Grgich launched the place. For one thing, when Grgich sold his interest, a quirk of Metro paperwork resulted in the loss of Family Wash’s beer license. When officials reinspected for a new license to reflect the ownership change, it turned out Family Wash was only 96 feet—not the requisite 100 feet—from the nearest residence. So now they serve only wines and high-alcohol beers, which are legal according to state regulations. (Oh, the irony.)The delectable shepherd’s pie, a culinary homage to the English pub tradition, has remained on the menu since the restaurant’s inception, and for many people is reason enough to cross the river. On Tuesday nights, when a pint and pie cost $10, virtually every table has at least one corrugated aluminum tin topped with a steaming heap of mashed potatoes and extra-sharp cheddar cheese, covering either a mixture of ground lamb and beef or a blend of lentils and veggies. The “designer pie” changes nightly and features an extra ingredient such as sun-dried tomatoes or roasted garlic.
When chef Julia Helton left in the spring, Rubin took the opportunity to revamp the menu, of course leaving the hallmark pie in place. He called in Beth Troisi, a longtime friend and restaurant consultant based in Boston. Building on a repertoire that was already heads above burgers and fries—and working with the limitations of a convection oven and four-burner electric stove in the minute galley—Troisi added a sandwich menu, a salsa sampler and a slate of appetizers and entrées that expand the Family Wash’s tradition of comfort food.
A highlight of the expanded roster is Gumaro’s salsas, named for prep cook Gumaro Ortega, whose native Mexican tastes and talents work their way into the dining room via occasional specials such as carne asada. The sampler of three fresh salsas (two red, one green) comes with house-made tortilla chips, no small effort in that tiny kitchen. Of the other appetizers we sampled, baked brie—a longtime offering—was our favorite, though we wanted the jalapeño cranberry relish to pack a more fiery punch against the soft, pastry-swaddled cheese. The dip of marinated artichokes with sautéed spinach and cheeses was headed in the right direction, with a bold leafy texture, but arrived congealed instead of gooey and required the sea salt on the table to amplify the flavor. (Our experience might have been an aberration, as others frequently rave about the dish.) Crab cakes were disappointing, with a gummy, bready texture and little discernible shellfish.
We fared better with entrées, primarily because almost everything we ordered came loaded with a roasted harvest of chunky summer vegetables. In the Szechwan cold noodle salad, spaghetti with a peanut-buttery sauce served as a comforting, hearty canvas for a generous pile of roasted red and green peppers, summer squash, zucchini and tomatoes. The flank steak, which was overcooked to a shale gray and carried little flavor from being braised in red wine, still served as a clean summer meal when plated with a fresh bed of greens and the roasted medley. Similarly, the garlic-lemon shrimp over penne was a little oily, but the shrimp were cooked gently, and, combined with the vegetables, made for the kind of light, simple meal most people aspire to pull off at home in lieu of another bowl of Kashi.
Over two visits, the only homemade dessert available on the rotating menu was a two-layer chocolate cake, which arrived dry and crumbly and topped with an all-too-familiar chocolate drizzle.
Overall, our food was good, not great. But the recipes of simple, fresh ingredients are as unself-conscious as The Family Wash itself, with its brightly colored walls, local art, paper lanterns and neighborhood diners. (Not to mention you never know who you’ll see—on one visit, we met Warren Pash, who co-wrote the Hall & Oates hit “Private Eyes,” and sat next to longtime David Bowie guitarist Reeves Gabrels.) It’s a combination that works just fine.
But it would work even better with a few little tweaks. If, for example, the crab-and-avocado salad were made with real lump crabmeat rather than krab-with-a-K. If they revived the killer molten-chocolate confection we had there a couple of years ago. If everything lived up to the shepherd’s pie. Rubin has got the hard parts in place—the reputation, the ambiance, the devoted clientele. With some adjustments (and perhaps a bigger kitchen), he could easily attain gastropub status.
Then again, why bother? It might attract the wrong kind of people.
The Family Wash opens for dinner at 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Check www.myspace.com/familywash for frequent specials.
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