Carole Greenwood's Empire, Minus Carole Greenwood How are Buck's Fishing & Camping and Comet Ping-Pong faring without their iconic chef?

Three to Make One: Bonino, Reh, and Alefantis have all but erased the memory of Carole Greenwood.
Darrow Montgomery

My first encounter with Carole Greenwood came not long after I started this job in early 2006. I had called Greenwood for an innocuous little column about what ingredients—fruit, vegetable, or protein—chefs would alter if they had the power to manipulate genetics. Greenwood returned my call with a question for me:

“Are you a man or a boy?”

I never did understand the inquiry, or its context, but I obviously got a straight shot of that famous Greenwood eccentricity. Or force of personality. Or hostility. Whatever you want to call it. It was just another facet of the same demanding soul who battled with bloggers over photographing her food at Buck’s Fishing & Camping, refused diners’ requests for substitutions, and viewed herself more like Jackson Pollock than kitchen poissonier.

“I don’t cook to make people happy,” she told Washington City Paper back when Todd Kliman held this job. “I cook because I’m an artist. And food is my medium.”

However you view Greenwood—and one source’s impression of her was filled with caution: “a 10-foot pole!”—you had to think that her obsessive attention to detail and singular devotion to the ingredient would be hard to replace and that her two restaurants, Buck’s and Comet Ping-Pong, would suffer greatly without her. At least

that’s what I thought when Greenwood announced this year that she was ditching her restaurant

career in favor of family, art, music, and writing. Who on earth could replace the mad genius of Carole Greenwood?

It turns out that Vickie Reh and Laura Bonino can. Reh is now the chef at Buck’s, while Bonino has assumed that title at Comet, the pizzeria just a couple of doors down. The fact that James Alefantis, Greenwood’s former business partner at both restaurants, hired two chefs to replace one might tell you something.

It could tell you that Greenwood’s talent was so immense no single person could replace her or that even the great Greenwood couldn’t keep up with the many requirements of both kitchens.

Or perhaps it means something that I never considered until I spoke with Alefantis on the phone: that both Buck’s and Comet were designed as restaurant concepts first—and chef vehicles second. While both Buck’s and Comet are, in their own way, chef-driven restaurants, the chefs are always subservient to the concept, the owner says. And here I thought Carole Greenwood was subservient to no one.

The first sign of their concept-first approach came way back in 2003, when the new partners changed the name of the restaurant from Greenwood to Buck’s. From the beginning, Alefantis says, he was a collaborator in his restaurants, from interior design to menu-planning. “Everything that went on the menu, we worked on it together,” Alefantis says. He and Greenwood would talk through each dish, says Alefantis, a self-taught cook, from concept down to individual ingredients. He performs the same role today.

If Alefantis was dismantling my notions of Buck’s and Comet—no longer were they pure reflections of Carole Greenwood’s art and ego—then he was also constructing the reasons why both restaurants are doing so swimmingly without their former chef. Their concepts are sturdy enough to support different talents in the kitchen.

Reh, former sous chef at Food Matters in Alexandria and a wine consultant, has bought into the Buck’s system as if she were a founding partner. Her menu (with the exception of the fish tacos, which are slightly crispy as if trying to channel Tex-Mex) fits comfortably into Alefantis and Greenwood’s original vision for Buck’s: rustic American food prepared with seasonal ingredients sourced from local suppliers. (Well, within reason; those lobsters are still from Maine and the bronzino, back in the day, came from the Adriatic, which must have created a carbon footprint the size of a small taxi fleet.)

The revamped Buck’s carries few traces of Greenwood’s old menus, save for the wedge salad and the signature slab of dry-aged prime sirloin steak, which was a smart move. I would have called for a military tribunal had they killed off that steak, this thick, gorgeously charred piece of meat whose flavors have been intensified through time, seasonings, and the hot, smoky flames of a wood grill.

In fact, that grill, fueled by a mix of oak and hickory, flavors many of my current favorites at Buck’s. Now, perhaps you think of the wood grill as a bludgeon of the kitchen, beating every ingredient until it tastes of smoke and char. Reh will disabuse you of that notion. Her wood-grilled lamb may be underseasoned, but I swear you can almost taste the New Zealand grasses (that carbon baby grows fatter) in every bite of these Frenched chops. Even more impressive is Reh’s appetizer of smoked fish; she manages to impart grill flavor while maintaining the integrity of the trout, Spanish mackerel, and, particularly, the sable, which is as moist and buttery as you could want.

With that said, I’d argue that Buck’s, during my visits in early October, was clinging to summer with the desperation of a college student. Corn and tomatoes stubbornly

remained on menu; not that I was complaining in the case of Reh’s appetizer of heirloom tomatoes paired with her housemade cottage cheese, at once creamy and toothsome. But still, a seasonal restaurant requires better calendar awareness.

The same faint echo of summer could be heard at Comet, where Bonino’s typically fresh and flavorful watermelon salad, accented with blood-orange oil and basil, was starting to show signs of age earlier this month. But I’d choose a mushy, degraded version of that salad over Bonino’s “The Hottie,” this misbegotten pizza loaded with thick green rounds of jalapeño still bearing seeds. The pie supplied more heat than a nuclear accident.

Everything else I sampled at the re-imagined Comet, though, was cool as can be. Baker Farid Fellag’s presence has solved one of the pizzeria’s historical problems, namely its inconsistent dough, which was sometimes salty, moist, and chewy and other times dry and crackery. The dough has settled into a consistent profile—thin, crackery, and chewy around the cornicione. It provides a flavorful canvas for Bonino’s best pies: the “Match Point,” a sort of sauceless Margherita spiked with roasted garlic, and the “Yalie,” a clam pizza sweetened with caramelized onions and brightened with the subtlest use of thyme. The dough is even the star of Bonino’s sausage-and-ricotta calzone, a sophisticated stuffed pie that has made me rethink my contrarian stance on this cheese bomb.

I never thought I’d say this, but neither Buck’s nor Comet misses Carole Greenwood.

Buck’s Fishing & Camping, 5031 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 364-0777

Comet Ping-Pong, 5037 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 364-0404

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 221. twitter.com/timcarman

Our Readers Say

OK, I'll believe you it's safe to go in (never been to either) ... the Greenwood encounters are enough to fill a book ... my last came at an art gallery in Georgetown at one of her openings (when she was still cooking) ... I need to go look for my meds just thinking about it.
Ann Cashion and Carole Greenwood.... what a pair of bitches. I avoid restaurants run by women like a 60s hippie would avoid the Army. Greenwood said sshe doesn't cook to make people happy?? WTF does she think people come to her places for??

I have heard so many stories of diners being rudely treated when they for example wanted regulaar fries instead of sweet-potato fries, etc. at both Cashion's and Greenwood's places.

There are only three women who have ever served up food whose tables I would sit at and entrusrt their expertise to deliver me a wonderful adventure and experience: My mother, "Mamma Ayesha" and Julia Child. Unfortnately all three have passed on. Speaking of passing on, I'll pass on anything Greenwood has to offer unless I am paid very handsomely to partake in the abuse.
I truly hope the recession puts an end to the ridiculous notion that diners must prostrate themselves before inflated egos just to buy something that, well, Mario Batali so succinctly put it; “When you think about it, all of my greatest work is poop, tomorrow.”
This headline reads as the culinary equivalent of "The Beatles Empire, Minus John Lennon.' When Carole Greenwood split, Buck's and Comet,- the food, the ambiance, the "concepts"- lost their John Lennon. Of course nothing about either restaurant reminds me of the Beatles, except for the 101 twinkling nights of shared camaraderie and a collective sense of humor, Taste, and jocular ambiance that the Beatles must have experienced countless times , the sense of being in the right place at the right time. Being there, among the hosts of disparate personalities , whether artists ( of which there were many), musicians, politicians, or the small army of long- loyal local foodie enthusiasts , and engaging in the muscular conversation of Carole's Long Table ( cut from a giant spruce-i believe, the same kind of tree Indians would carve their canoes from ), was truly a magical thing. It was a community, joined by the zeal for truly great food, and the mirth and belly laughter that ensues when you ply people with the perfect meal, again and again. This was Carole's vision, this Epicurean sense of a collective fostered by a warm , loose, but finely tuned ambiance, and agrarian cooking of the highest caliber. It's not the same without her. Sure, Wings has a few good songs, and Ringo's perma-grin and ever present peace signs are reassuring, not unlike chain restaurants. And for those of you who asked for A-1 on their steaks or caught her on a bad day....well, Lennon wasn't always a glad-handed, grinning , un-opinionated host either. Like Greenwood, he wasn't cowed by people-pleasing , or compelled to work the room for acceptance. She was true to her art. That came first. Could Carole at times be stubborn and truculent? Sure. That's what happens when a vision gets clouded by mean spirited gossip and the constant coddling of food critics. Give me an unpredictable , tempestuous, insanely gifted John any day. And for all those community watch dog pundits and hung up squares that missed it, all the myriad experiences the countless nights when she would come out of the kitchen, take a seat at the Long Table , and calmly soak in the happiness of her friends as they ate her delicious, comforting , re-invented takes on the classic foods of our fathers and grandfathers, well... I feel sorry for you that you missed it. And that you're missing it now. On nights like those, when the Table became a canoe, with Carole smiling at her friends from the helm.
(she is very very funny, y'know) , her charm and warmth co-mingled with the candles flashing everywhere, great, pregnant glasses of red wine chiming from toasts, one could make out a twinkle in her eye that said "I cook to make people happy. " A lucky product of the medium of her artistry ? Perhaps. I'd wager to say that twinkle in her eye and her artistry are inseparable, that that twinkle was itself the architect of it all, the genesis and spark that gave the Buck's and Comet their sparkle, their edge, their excitement, and that heavenly food. Every plate she sent out meant something to her. She was personally invested in every detail. Her gifts as a chef, a friend, and as a human being are INDISPENSABLE, and now that they have left Buck's for even more adventurous climes, well, you can still listen to the old records. I hear Ringo even recently opened a restaurant chain.
Unfortunately, articles like these and City Paper continue to make DC appear to be a boring and petty chip-on-the-shoulder small town playground of the bourgeoise instead of a diverse and daring Nation's Capital.
That purple-prose tripe from "One of Many" is so delusional it is comical. The John Lennon metaphor only has one valid (and unmentioned) aspect, which is the "Yoko Ono" of Stewart Lupton (Carole's on-again, off-again, on-the-junk-again, off-with-another-girl-again quasi-boyfriend) who served as such a distraction in her life that she totally disengaged from the restaurants to chase his self-absorbed, narcissistic, faded star hither, thither, and yon. Carole ran restaurant after restaurant into the ground with her erratic behaviour and Buck's would have followed suit without Alefantis' help. The menu has FINALLY been updated (and very well, one might add) after what seemed like a year or more of no innovation whatsoever, so to claim that going there is to "listen to the old records" is preposterous. She was a menace to the staff and patrons (and I'm sure Mr.Alefantis) and if she thinks her "twinkle" is indispensable, she should have been there Friday when my wife and I had to wait for 45 minutes for a table. It's as much fun as ever and for a change the staff didn't seem like they had to walk on eggshells or act as intermediaries between a tyrant and a patron trying to enjoy a nice meal. Good riddance!
I used be a big fan of Bucks and it's unfortunate that James and Caol couldn't resolve the conflict on professional level. Bucks and Carol was a packaged experience - food, ambiance, and Carol's support for local artists. The food might taste the same or better but wouldn't be the same experience to go to Bucks again...
Again, as an unbiased reader, how depressing it is for DC to see an article about food turn into a forum of personal attacks and adolescent hurtful gossip. Is this really what Washington City Paper and this town is about?
It's uncool that people are commenting on Carole Greenwood's personal life, listing her boyfriend's real name. That's lame.
Working with artists is always an intense experience and there is always two sides to every story. I happen to know Carole's side and it would make those dining on the new food choke and feel nauseous. I will only say that if they knew what really happened, they like me would no longer dine at either establishment.

Carole is the real deal. A real artist with moods and feelings just like all of you. She is a real talent and we were fortunate enough to have her cook for us for a long while in DC.

Continue the rabid dialogue and we will continue to lose our deep talent to the superficial, rabid, uninformed fodder.

Good job City Paper for lowering the bar a little more on DC culture.
How in the world did an article about food digress into a personal attack about Stewart Lupton? Mr. "Scarpini's" uninformed, dated, and perplexingly mean-spirited comments concerning Mr. Lupton's private life, not to mention Ms. Greenwood's, undermine their own clueless content by taking the cheapest, cowardly shots imaginable. This seemingly out of the blue attack so reeks with the odor of mendacity that any discerning reader fixed agenda, namely to consciously discredit and further hurt Ms. Greenwood to such a degree that this reader felt at first uncompelled to
...excuse iPhone's eagerness to put the " Mr. Scapini's " of the world in their place. Continuing from " any discerning reader.. can immediately sense a fixed agenda behind the lines, a conscious attempt to discredit and hurt Ms. Greenwood via going after someone close to her, someone with a known history of past drug addiction, thus further embellishing the picture of the chaos and unpredictability that supposedly forced Greenwood and Alefantis to part ways. If one only knew the gross hypocrisy behind this diversionary tactic...but it is not this reader's purpose to revel in the n
Stupid phone. It is not this reader's intent to add any fuel to the muck raking, but rAther to STRONGLY protest, in 3 parts, the scapegoating of a MUSICIAN. A profoundly gifted, influential , good natured musician at that. Who once had a drug problem. Which is old news. And the reason it is old news is that Mr. Lupton has been a public figure for over a decade, known the world round for his legendary performances and lyricism / poetry that is widely considered to be among the most visionary and compelling in current music today. He has always been candid with the press about his struggle with addiction, making him an easy target for such "in the know" sideline snipers such as Mr. Henry Scarpini. What a cheAp shot. Please, we readers of this fine paper demand a little more originality in our bile,more daring in our pernicious personal attacks, more zeal to the libelous chatter of our cultured community . Thank you for yr time.
I love Carole Greenwood!
It doesn't seem like the author or the city paper lowered the bar of DC culture from this critic of the "new" food offered at Comet or Bucks. The author actually seemed surprised to still like the food at both restaurants. It's unfortunate to take that as a knock to the previous chef. Politics, rumors, and plain old crazy drama aside the author noted some great comparisons to the food before and after. One positive outcome I would have to agree with is that the pizza dough is far more superior now that Farid Fellag is solely focused on it.
this lady has been riding on the coat tails of Stewart Lupton since he left their ill fated "relationship" a year and a half ago. i heard he made her a record. i heard it's great. no surprise. stewart is a kind and bright star, a hell of a funny guy, and yet he takes a "beating" cuz he helped "enable" carole greenwoods overnight's overnight career change from chef to rock and roller. if he was a juggler, she'd be in her backyard catching flaming chainsaws. there is no culprit. james and carole should have split years ago. period.
Actually, you should check out the reviews for Comet and Buck's on Yelp.com - doesn't sound like either of these places are particularly worth the money, with or without Greenwood.

Leave a Comment

Note: HTML tags are not allowed in comments.
Comments Shown. Turn Comments Off.
...