On an October evening that still feels like summer, I’m at Zinnia, the 11,000-square-foot, all-day, multi-concept establishment that a year earlier replaced Mrs. K’s Toll House, the beloved Silver Spring mainstay whose 90-year run ended early in the pandemic. I’m sitting in the larger of two split-level rooms comprising the 80-seat, fine-dining restaurant that owner Chris Brown and Zinnia’s chef, Danny Wells, unveiled in September. This is the latest in Brown’s Zinnia concepts; he opened the tavern and vast beer garden in October 2021, a cafe in July 2022 and an upstairs bar a month later. (He laughs when asked if the new restaurant has a specific name. “We have that same conversation at every managers’ meeting,” he demurs.)
Sipping a delightful, well-balanced cocktail made with mint and marjoram-infused gin, green Chartreuse and dry vermouth and nibbling a puff pastry tart of tender smoked lamb, roasted red peppers and whipped feta cheese, I take in the views. Outside, children run around playing while adults sit in the hilly beer garden at tables outfitted with colorful fringed patio umbrellas and painted metal lawn chairs, many of which take me back to my grandmother’s backyard. Inside, stone floors in shades of claret, brick and gray are evidence that the room was once an outdoor terrace. A post in the middle of the room leads to spokes on the ceiling surrounded by light bulbs, the fixture a reference to the large umbrella that used to shade the terrace. Paned awning windows propped open from the upstairs bar and dining room contribute to the suggestion that the lower dining room is outside.
Perusing the menu’s entrees, I zero in on “tiny herb dumplings, shiitake mushrooms, egg yolk, Parmesan Arborio rice soubise,” soon to discover that, as suspected, they’re spaetzle, squiggly little German dumplings made by scraping wheat flour-based batter through a colander into boiling water. Wells imbues his batter with pureed parsley and basil, turning the spaetzle vividly green, then sautes the cooked dumplings with shiitake mushrooms and soubise (a porridge-like rice sauce) and tops them with a raw egg yolk and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. It’s up to the diner to toss the lot together so the yolk and cheese thicken the sauce and impart richness throughout. The delicious outcome is the menu’s sleeper hit. More on the food in a bit.
Brown, 40, lives in Takoma Park with his wife, Kelly Mills, and their three children. (Zinnia is their middle child’s middle name.) The upstate New York native came to the DMV for graduate school, earning a master’s degree in secondary education from George Washington University in 2010 and then teaching biology, advanced-placement environmental science and horticulture at Montgomery Blair High School for eight years. He came to love the hospitality industry when working in it for beer money in college. While teaching, he spent summers and weekends “slinging coffee,” as he puts it, at Northside Social in Arlington. “I loved [the field of] food and beverage and those weekend shifts!” he exclaims. That love, in 2017, inspired him to leave teaching and co-found (with his cousin, Seth Cook) Takoma Beverage Co., an all-day coffee shop and bar in Takoma Park. When the Mrs. K’s space came on the market, he saw an opportunity to go bigger than Takoma Bev Co. He signed the lease in January 2021.
Wells, a Takoma Park native and Silver Spring resident, came onboard as executive chef in July 2022. He worked for the Black Restaurant Group for 19 years, six of them at Republic restaurant in Takoma Park, which closed in September. (Wells had left in 2019.) Republic was near Takoma Bev Co., and Wells and Brown struck up a friendship because they’d often hang out in each other’s workplaces after work.
At Zinnia, Wells brings to the fine-dining restaurant the kind of straightforward, unpretentious cooking for which he was known and appreciated at Republic, adding touches of upscale flair here and there. Steamed blue-shell mussels with roasted garlic cream, roasted tomatoes, mace and hot smoked paprika shine in their simplicity. A hit of sherry brings a touch of refinement to blue crab, scallops, shrimp and bacon chowder, even if I’d prefer not to eat it from a shallow square bowl.
In addition to the herb dumplings, the swordfish is an outstanding entree. Wells sears a thick chunk of the line-caught fish, then braises it to succulence with cherry tomatoes, capers, lemon and thinly sliced artichoke hearts, finishing the dish with blue crab lumps. Pan-roasted whole, deboned rainbow trout stuffed with spinach, pine nuts and roasted butternut squash is another standout. It’s served over creamy polenta and topped with a vinaigrette made with marinated artichoke hearts and pickled peppers.
For meat eaters, a 10-ounce, center-cut ribeye steak with tonka bean (a wrinkled South American legume with vanilla notes) and red wine sauce, roasted potatoes and crispy onion rings hits the spot, but my money is on the duck. Wells sears a breast to medium rare, slices it and serves it with a compote of cooked peaches, spiced pecans and tarragon mixed with shredded confited (braised in fat until tender) duck leg meat. Duck stock reduction flavored with orange zest completes the dish. A side order of “drunken” beech and oyster mushrooms sauteed with Madeira wine and garlic and served over brioche complements the meat dishes nicely.
Desserts at Zinnia, including so-so renditions of cheesecake, creme brulee and chocolate ganache cake, are worth passing up. That’s a minor glitch in an otherwise pleasing performance.
Overall Rating: B+
9201 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring, 301-704-6653, eatzinnia.com
Favorite Dishes: Steamed mussels with tomatoes and smoked paprika; duck breast with peaches; herb dumplings with shiitake mushrooms; rainbow trout stuffed with butternut squash, spinach and pine nuts; swordfish with blue crab, cherry tomatoes, lemon and capers
Prices: Appetizers: $12 to $15; Entrees: $22 to $39; Desserts: $8.
Libations: Owner Chris Brown enlisted his team from Takoma Bev Co. (Dylan Greer, cocktails; Seth Cook, wine; Mark Rothman, beer) to formulate the beverage program at Zinnia. The restaurant features several rotating craft cocktails ($13 to $16), among them the Bell Jar (gin, Nocino walnut liqueur, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and fig-infused vermouth) and the Pepino Fresca (tequila, Italicus bergamot liqueur, grapefruit bitters and cucumber).
Thirteen wines are offered by the glass and bottle: two sparklers ($15/$16; $58/$62), two rosés ($14/$15; $50/$52), four whites ($11 to $15; $38 to $56) and five reds ($12 to $16; $48 to $62). Cook favors Old World wines; nine of the 13 are from France, Spain or Italy.
Seven beers ($7 to $11) are available, four of them from Maryland breweries: Silver Branch Brewing Co. and Astro Lab Brewing in Silver Spring, Union Craft Brewing in Baltimore and Manor Hill Brewing in Ellicott City.
Service: Informed, pleasant and engaging. Servers, when presenting bills, make a point of informing diners that a 20% service charge has already been added, even though that policy is clearly stated on the menu.