By Pamela Schipper | Photography by Hilary Schwab
This has never happened to me before. I have never dined at a restaurant where the chef’s preparation of dishes that I normally dislike tastes really good.
At GrillMarX Steakhouse & Raw Bar in Olney, it started with the tuna tartare. Bear in mind that I don’t eat uncooked food ever. But this dish arrives at our table beautifully built, the fresh tuna crowning a colorful cylinder of chopped cucumber, micro lettuces, ginger crème fraiche and sesame wasabi strips, all dressed with artistic splashes of 100 percent passion fruit–purée blended with clover honey and Sriracha. So of course I try it, and it’s wonderful with complementary spicy and sweet tastes and varied textures.
Then there’s the happy hour trio of appetizers—spinach dip, fresh salsa and crab dip accompanied by fresh crostini and corn tortilla chips that are fried inhouse. The spinach and crab present a dual challenge for me. Normally, I like my spinach dip drowned in cheese, for obvious reasons. GrillMarX’s version arrives looking pretty naked—cooked spinach with a small amount of grated cheese. I approach with trepidation, but the spinach is still crisp, very fresh and well-seasoned. And the crab dip? It’s warm and comforting.
But the real surprise for me is the grits. These are no ordinary grits. Sophisticated and smooth, they’re flavored with cheddar and scallion and almost steal the show from the pork tenderloin entrée that they accompany. Almost. But the dish’s tastes work so well together that it’s hard to imagine eating the delicate meat dressed in a rosemary Cabernet reduction and Sriracha brush without the grits.
This and That
“When we make plates and we do entrées and whatnot, I think through each element as to what flavor propels it and what balances and what’s here and there, what’s sweet with the grilled,” says Executive Chef Doug Kellner, the man behind this culinary magic. The pork tenderloin is a personal favorite of his.
We order the Kona ribeye, too. Now, I love steak in any form, and all of GrillMarX’s beef is certified Angus. All of the steaks look good, and I’m tempted by the Gorgonzola New York strip and the peppercorn-encrusted filet mignon. But the ribeye is particularly enticing, rubbed with Kona coffee and brown sugar and then spice-and-herb marinated for four or five days and cooked over a hickory wood burning grill. “I like the nice char that you get with the Kona,” says Kellner.
The ribeye arrives cockily sprouting a large sprig of rosemary and accompanied by a baked potato. Like other menu items, the GrillMarX rendition of this staple is unexpected. “We do a salt crust on the baked potato,” explains Kellner. “We brush them with a little bit of oil and encrust them with salt. What the salt does is dries out the skins and makes them a little crispy. Then we roast them in the oven at 350 or 375 degrees for about 40 minutes and keep them whole until we pop them open to order. With the salt, they’ve got a nice, rich flavor.”
Many restaurants cook potatoes in foil. “In the foil, it steams and it changes the color,” explains Kellner. “It might cut the time, but we’re all about let’s take our time, let’s get it right, and we’ll enjoy it so our guests can enjoy it, too. We try and do something a little different with each of our elements. The baked potato is one that’s a huge seller.”
Another popular order is the baked potato soup. Offered daily, this is creamy with a delicate scallion bite and chunks of potato. GrillMarX rotates its other soups throughout the week. On the Thursday that we visit, this is French onion made with a touch of Sriracha. Our friendly server, Jamie Roberts, reports that customers have told her it’s wonderful for their sinuses!
Falls in Your Lap
Jackie and Andy Leach, GrillMarX coowners along with Eric and Jennifer Cheadle, have known Executive Chef Kellner since he was three years old. “I used to teach him,” says Jackie, “and then I had him in an after-school program for years. I’ve known his family forever, and he’s been into cooking forever.” When the partners decided to open their first upscale restaurant and were looking for a chef, the perfect answer had already fallen into their laps. They approached Kellner. “He went to culinary school at Johnson and Wales, and I know his work ethic,” says Jackie. “From the time he was 13 years old, he’s done nothing but work hard—he just cares so much. He’s 25 years old.”
Before getting behind the August 2011 opening of GrillMarX, Kellner was running all of the Johnson and Wales’ kitchens in Providence, Rhode Island, and entertaining offers from three restaurants there. But the Gaithersburg native, who previously had worked for Montgomery Country Club and Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder, wanted to return home.
“It’s worked out so wonderfully,” says Jackie. In fact, the restaurateurs plan on looking for location number two within a year, perhaps in Frederick or Howard County, and build upon their Olney foundation.
Whenever possible, GrillMarX tries to source locally. “It depends on the season,” says Kellner. “We try and use local seafood during the summer. Even in toward fall, we were doing local rockfish. We offer local oysters on our menu, that’s our raw bar, and we try and source our produce locally.”
Treehouse Produce in Kensington is GrillMarX’s main produce supplier, and Grassential in Potomac brings farm-fresh eggs and specialty meats to the restaurant’s Sunday brunch.
The 128-seat restaurant can accommodate large parties of 10 or more, and GrillMarX loves families. “If you don’t serve families in Olney, you’re nowhere,” laughs Jackie. “We have kids eating off of the kids menu and the regular menu.”
A family favorite is dessert. All of GrillMarx’s desserts are made from scratch every day. Think amaretto and mascarpone cheesecake with caramel drizzle and whipped cream, crème brûlée with Tahitian vanilla, chocolate cake with milk chocolate ganache, whipped cream and peppermint, and sundaes big enough to share with two or three spoons. “People love the apple crisp, too,” says Jackie, “because there are no raisins or nuts in it.”
Another popular attraction for families is the GrillMarX Sunday brunch. Powered by a traditional buffet complete with omelet and carving stations, pancakes, eggs and applewood-smoked bacon, the brunch also offers menu items, some of which are unusual. Jackie points to the fried egg burger, the bread pudding and the French toast made with brioche bread, cinnamon and nutmeg.
And for the adults? There are 22 wines available by the glass and 10 by the half-bottle. But try a martini. These are generous at 10 ounces and include fresh-squeezed juices.
In fact, all of GrillMarX’s portions are generous. You can even order a half-rack of ribs over French fries as an appetizer. “You won’t leave hungry,” says Jackie. “We spend a lot of money on to-go containers.”
Executive Chef Doug Kellner’s Maryland Crab Cakes
Yield: 16–18 crab cakes. Prep time: 35 minutes.
2 lbs. jumbo lump crab meat, picked clean
2 lbs. backfin crab meat, picked clean
2 tbs. shallots, chopped
2 tbs. garlic, chopped
2 tbs. parsley, chopped fine
3/4 c. mayonnaise
1/4 c. Dijon mustard
2 tbs. Old Bay
1 each whole egg, whisked
1/2 c. bread crumbs (more as needed)
½ tbs. kosher salt
½ tbs. black pepper, ground
4 oz. oil
1. Gather all ingredients needed to prepare recipe.
2. Add all ingredients into large mixing bowl, except for oil.
3. Gently fold ingredients together in bowl, and be careful not to break apart the jumbo lump crab meat.
4. Heat oil in sauté pan over medium heat.
5. Scoop and shape 4 oz. crab cakes and place into sauté pan.
6. Sear about 2 minutes on one side and then flip using a spatula and sear another 2 minutes on the other side.
7. Remove crab cakes and place onto sheet pan or cookie sheet.
8. Place sheet pan into 375º F oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until crab cakes are hot throughout.
9. Serve crab cakes with desired side dishes.
You can find GrillMarX Steakhouse & Raw Bar in Olney’s Fair Hill Shopping Center, 18149 Town Center Drive. www.grillmarxsteakhouse.com
Published in the March/April 2012 issue of Montgomery Magazine.