Chef Tony’s (4926 St. Elmo, Bethesda) has been open nearly four years (says the informative if cluttered website), but we discovered it only recently, and it is really a hidden gem. If you can be “hidden” right in the middle of St. Elmo Avenue, that is.
A Mediterranean joint with a seafood focus, Tony’s is (like many restaurants these days) all about fresh, local ingredients, but unlike some, they seem to be serious about it. For example, they make their own buffalo mozzarella, and it is super-creamy, fresh, fantastic. The calamari (not local?) is also fresh and perfectly cooked, even creamy-textured (to a lesser degree than the mozza), not at all rubbery, and expertly fried, though still a bit greasy for Mrs. Me’s taste (I loved every last crumb). Plus they give you the tentacles (the best part), not just rings like some places do.
We also enjoyed the crab pasta, lots of fresh crabmeat and perfect al dente pasta — pretty sure the pasta was from a box, not fresh-made, but that’s about the only thing that wasn’t clearly fresh. Pan-seared sole in parmesan crust over mashed potatoes with big salty capers was also a winner. Nearly everything was delicious, down to the large cannoli we ended with. We also got a square of cheesecake to go, and that was the only item we didn’t think was great — texture was fine, but flavors were off; it was supposed to be a melange of a couple of fruits, but didn’t work for our tastebuds.
Service was friendly but we encountered some odd delays. They didn’t seem understaffed — multitudes of black-clad staff were constantly zipping all over the floor — but maybe they were. The space is a little awkward, with essentially two separate rooms, one in front and one in back, separated by a bar with a narrow passage. Even though the timing was sometimes off, it didn’t affect our food, which arrived hot and fresh.
The only other drawback was the temperature, which was authentically Mediterranean-in-August; the calamari in the fryer wasn’t too many degrees higher than us at our table. Ceiling fans were rotating full steam but either the air conditioning was broken, or maybe there isn’t any, or maybe they’re just trying to save a little money; in any case, by the end of the meal, I was sweating, not a vindaloo kind of sweat, but a hot-restaurant-with-insufficient-AC sweat. Kind of unpleasant.
The food was fab, and we will for sure be visiting Chef Tony’s with more frequency, but not until the weather cools down (so, maybe late October?).