Twice each year blue crabs rush onto sandy shores to shed their hard shells then return to the ocean where they will form new shells within days. In the brief time that the crabs are without their shells they are extremely vulnerable. They are also extremely delicious.
Softshells are once again on the menus of many local restaurants, but the house recipe at Old Angler’s Inn is indicative of a slightly new direction at the restaurant.
Softshells have long been served at Old Angler’s, but this year’s recipe adds a Vietnamese flair to the American classic. They are dusted in polenta and flash fried, then served on creamy polenta with a Vietnamese dipping sauce.
“It’s like crispy corn, soft corn, and then this sauce with ginger, mint, cilantro, chiles, and lime juice,” said head chef Jeff Tomchek. “It’s a lot of flavors jumping around.”
What’s old is new again at Old Angler’s Inn, with Tomchek back for a second tour of duty at the restaurant. Tomchek was the head chef at Old Angler’s from 1992 to 1997 before returning to his native Chicago.
“When I took over one of the first things I did was look him up,” said Mark Reges, who owns and operates the restaurant with his wife, Sara, and his brother Gregory. They took over operation of the restaurant at the beginning of the new year, completing a gradual transition after his mother, Old Angler’s founder Olympia Reges, died in the summer of 2005.
Reges flew to Chicago to visit Tomchek, who Reges refers to as Chef Jeff, to see if he would be interested in returning to Old Angler’s in the dual roles of head chef and general manager.
“Although he loved it up there, he always had a love for [Old] Angler’s Inn, so it was kind of an easy sell,” Reges said.
THE RETURN OF CHEF JEFF and the next generation of Reges ownership have precipitated some changes at Old Angler’s. For one, the menu will change seasonally now, with as much as 95 percent turnover in each change. It may also vary slightly during each season as availability of certain items warrants.
“Some of our customers over the past four, five years could actually recite the menu it had changed so little, which is not a good thing,” Reges said. “The menu was stale. With [Tomchek] coming back, he’s changed it in many, many ways.”
Those changes include using seasonal produce and seafood to create seasonal dishes, as well as the reintroduction of tasting menus. This is an option for customers who want to try something new and want to leave the decision for exactly what they will eat in Tomchek’s hands.
Spontaneously composed, the tasting menus can be five-, six- or seven-course meals that Tomchek puts together.
“There’s a plan, but the plan is very loose,” said Tomchek of what goes into each tasting menu. “Waiters ask [the customers] what their favorite foods are, what they hate, and if they have any allergies. I look at their restrictions and I have kind of a daily list of menu items that I can break down into smaller portions, my daily specials, and I bring several things in every day that never see the menu or the daily specials.”
Thus far customers have responded very positively to the tasting menus. Some nights as much as three quarters of what Tomchek serves have been tasting menus.
“It’s fun and it’s fun for the customers.”
Despite the new additions to the menu, some items will never leave. Staples such as the Caesar salad, the rack of lamb and the crème brulee have been hallmarks of Old Angler’s since it opened.
“Those are three things that I don’t touch on the menu,” said Tomchek. “I just make sure we do them consistently the way they’ve been done in the past. That’s the history of Old Angler’s.”
SUBTLE CHANGES will also be made in the restaurant’s décor as the Reges family continues to update the restaurant. New furniture and carpets will freshen the interior of the restaurant and live music outside on weekends this summer will combine with happy hour specials in an effort to attract customers, Reges said.
Angler's Garden, a new patio area in back of the restaurant is designed to cater to the outdoor crowd that visits the C&O Canal and Potomac River.
Angler's Garden serves lunch and dinner throughout the week during the summer. The menu features lighter fare such as a Chicago-style kosher hot dog, a Texas-style barbecue beef brisket sandwich, and a Soft-Serve custard machine for desserts. Prices in Angler's Garden will be lower than the regular menu, with entrees ranging from $7-$12, Tomchek said. By comparison, a dinner for two from the regular menu with a glass of wine accompanying each entree averages around $100, Tomchek said.
Chef Jeff’s dual roles as both head chef and general manager of the restaurant include both the expected — balancing the books, overseeing the wait staff, arranging the menu — to the less expected, such as assisting marriage proposals.
“I’ve put rings in oysters, clams, chocolate cakes, about anything you can think of I’ve stuck a diamond ring into.”
Even handling seating arrangements at the restaurant can be tricky, especially when it comes to Table Six, the most popular table in the restaurant.
“Customers know it as Table Six and call ahead to request it,” Tomchek said. As a result, he and the long-time Maitre d' Ahmad Nazari have to appease customers who can’t get their requested table.
“Ahmad usually is the one who has to break the bad news,” Tomchek said.
OLD ANGLER’S has been a favorite for locals since it opened in 1957, and the restaurant will celebrate its 50th anniversary with an anniversary gathering this summer, Reges said.
Donna Greenfield moved to Potomac from Los Angeles 19 years ago and has been a regular at the restaurant ever since, coming in more often than she cared to admit.
For her, the reason she keeps coming back is simple — “The food, the ambiance, [and] the people,” Greenfield said. She has always been a big fan of the lamb, but right now she loves the new recipe for the softshells.
“It’s funny, sometimes I go outside the box for something and people love it, and then other times they’ll kind of be like, ‘Why are you doing that?’” Tomchek said. The thrill of creating new dishes and turning customers on to new tastes is what makes his work fulfilling.
“Everybody who’s creative sits in some sort of box and I’m always trying to figure out where the walls of the box are so I can push on them a little bit but not necessarily break my little box,” Tomchek said. It is an ongoing experiment that Tomchek said he plans to be working on at Old Angler’s for some time.
For Greenfield, having Tomchek back is just icing on the cake at her favorite place to eat.
“The people that work here are just phenomenal,” Greenfield said. “You feel like family. I travel a lot so I eat in a lot of different restaurants. … Obviously the food’s fabulous, [and] the wait people and everybody else just treats you really, really well. It really is a dining experience.”