When Blue 44 opened up its doors nine months ago, the owner/operator, Christofer Nardelli, had a vision for his restaurant. He wanted a comfortable hangout for residents, families and students who crave good food at reasonable prices.
If last night was any indication of a typical evening there, then he’s achieved his goal.
Blue 44 is on Connecticut Avenue in a neighborhood with a dearth of restaurants. It’s in a non-descript shopping center, a block from the Chevy Chase Safeway and south of the Uptown Theatre. Blue 44 occupies a narrow space with dark wooden booths and a small bar in back. Televisions play sporting events simultaneously, and the staff greets people with uncommon friendliness. This, according to Blue 44’s bartender, is because, “We know most of our customers.” It surely looked that way. One young server picked up a guest’s walker like she’d done it many times before, to stow away, and return it when the guest was ready to leave.
The inspiration behind Blue 44 is Pittsburgh, the owner’s hometown. If you’ve spent any time in Pittsburgh, you will totally get it. Blue 44 is like so many of the hospitable, warm and cozy restaurants in the ‘Burgh. I had the pleasure of living there one summer and ate my way through the college town of Oakland. I never made it halfway, there are so many worthy places to dine, and at bargain prices. And when you were craving homemade pasta and gravy, it’s a short drive or walk from Oakland over the Bloomfield Bridge, to Pittsburgh’s Little Italy. Which is where Nardelli apparently got his chops, so to speak.
One famous restaurant in the Oakland neighborhood, at the confluence of University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, is Primanti Brothers. This little dive put itself on the map, when they added cole slaw and French fries to their subs, or hoagie as you say in Pittsburgh.
Honestly, I’ve never eaten one, and maybe never will. I like my French fries on the side where I can savor every one. So, although Blue 44 offers a “Pittsburgh-style cheesesteak” I opted for the grilled cheese sandwich of the day. My guests chose the Nicoise salad and the Coq au Vin. Now, that doesn’t sound too Pittsburgh, I know, but it demonstrates the strengths of Blue 44’s kitchen. Formerly under the tutelage of skilled chefs at Annapolis’ Treaty of Paris and Persimmon, Chef James Turner found his breakout role here at Blue 44 and is a formidable player in the kitchen. He’s got a nice range, but may be better at preparing meals for fine dining than he is dive dining.
The only other Pittsburgh dish is the Peirogis appetizer, puffs of potato dumplings sautéed in butter topped with caramelized onions. The rest of the dishes vary from New American to French and Italian-influenced. No matter, diners don’t hold Blue 44 to this Pittsburgh theme, and everyone seemed to enjoy having options from Duck Confit to Boullabaisse.
After a bit of a wait, the Nicoise salad arrived with medium rare grilled tuna steak nestled on green beans, hardboiled eggs, gaufrette potatoes and capers in a lemon vinaigrette. My guest was raised in a French-speaking country, and has a gluten allergy. Saying she was impressed with this dish, the tiny woman devoured every bite. Her sister, my other companion, is a meat and potatoes fan. A fluent cook, she’s made her fair share of coq au vin, but said this rendition was superb. Blue 44 dubs the dish Bistro Chicken—pan roasted chicken cooked in thick bacon, leeks, carrots, mushrooms and red bliss potatoes simmered in wine.
I was craving a hearty, decadent sandwich, but was a little disappointed with my grilled cheese of the day. The grilled bread was a little mushy, the provolone was not melted, but fortunately, the fresh tomato, thick bacon slices and raw spinach leaves saved it from disaster. The fries were outstanding however—crisp, not over-salted, not greasy and very potatoey.
The wine list and beer choices were slight but quality. The desserts were artistic and varied. I especially wanted to try their Campfire Torte—a chocolate torte topped with marshmallow cream, graham crackers and dulce de leche sauce. But, I’m saving that for my next visit, which I should time around some of their weekly specials: Blue 44 hosts Sunday Brunch from 11:30 until 2:30, Ladies Night on Thursday from 5-11 pm with discounted drinks, and on Monday nights, a Three Course Fried Chicken Dinner with a salad and dessert for $19.
When I arrived at 6 pm, there were a few tables available, but within minutes, every table was filled. Blue 44 won’t seat you without a full party and doesn’t take reservations for tables less than six. We dined in the bar, which offered a view of the action and I witnessed a constant flow of newcomers until about 8 pm. Both times I’ve stopped in, the place was packed and there was a wait. I asked the bartender why so popular. Quite the philosopher, a trait valued in bartenders, he shared his opinion, “We feel like home.”
If I lived close by, I would probably be a regular at Blue 44.