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Milan-born and Bethesda-bred chef Tony Marciante knows food and Bethesda. He was executive chef at the Bethesda McCormick & Schmick's before opening Visions in November 2007. Earlier this summer, the 23-year veteran of the business re-envisioned the restaurant, the fourth he has owned. The new name reflects that it is his kind of cooking experience and he's behind it. His business card reads: Chef Tony Marciante, Chef Proprietor & CSO (Chief Seafood Officer).

Reached by telephone just as he was leaving to go the market, Marciante shares his philosophy: "Keep it simple. Keep it fresh. If you have great ingredients, you don't have to do much." Keep it seasonal as well.

He describes his "simple, clean flavors" as "rustic gourmet." Chef Tony's is not a pretentious place, he declares. Rather, it's a place where he wants people to come to have a good time.

One menu at dinner features smaller, tapas-style plates possibly attuned to those who wish to sit at the bar with a glass of wine. The other menu, consisting of starters, main plates and finishes (desserts), is keyed to the market basket and changes daily.

Nonetheless, the chef admits that some items, like the deftly fried calamari with peppers, lemon and basil aioli that we enjoy, the grilled Caesar salad with a balsamic reduction and the filet mignon satay among the starters, are perennials.

Not to be missed is the tempura soft shell crab dressed with fennel and celery slaw. A fellow at another table requested two as a main plate for an upcharge. The mussels with tomato, garlic, Chardonnay and more than a grace note of salt are plump and tasty.

In the main plates, seafood shines. The generous seven-ounce Maryland crabcake served with Old Bay fries and aioli is a perennial, popular with diners, and this diner, too.

Perfectly seared scallops appear on a bed of al dente yellow lentils with asparagus spears. The dish is a lesson in restraint.

A rich mushroom risotto and carnival (purple and white) cauliflower complement Alaskan sockeye salmon that the kitchen treats with respect.

A friend relishes his herb-infused, whole grilled black bass with summer corn, zucchini and tomatoes but not the effort it takes to debone it. (He'd surely appreciate the experienced waiter encountered elsewhere who skillfully dispatched that task.)

Other finny possibilities include baked Boston cod with heirloom tomatoes and pan-seared freshwater trout with farm-stand tomatoes and asparagus.

The accent may be on seafood, but carnivores will find a six-ounce filet mignon with demi-glace, onions and Peruvian potatoes and a six-ounce fresh bison New York strip with chimichurri and Peruvian purple potatoes. For vegans, a seasonal farm stand vegetable plate may satisfy.

In his black chef's coat, Marciante makes his way around the room. If he had stopped by later, we might have asked about the unusual green apple tart — a thin layer of concentrated apple puree on a sweet rich crust, a small pool of caramel sauce and a sprinkling of caramel powder or the deconstructed ice cream sundae or sweet potato "pie."

We definitely appreciate the large mug full of strong coffee to cap off the meal.

Red glass fixtures perk up the dining room, illuminating some tables while leaving others in shadow. The bar divides the narrow 85-seat restaurant into two rooms. The back one can be used for private parties and business functions. Marciante calls the side walkway he converted into an intimate alcove with five tables for two, "lovers' lane."

"Whatever happens there stays in there," he jests. "Diners either love that area or hate it."

A few things to note: Marciante will adjust his daily menu to diners' dietary needs (including gluten-free meals) when alerted in advance. The restaurant is closed Mondays, but available for private parties that day. Wine is half-price on Sunday and Tuesday at dinner. A two-course lunch is offered for $12.95. Dinner seating is until 8 p.m. The third Thursday night of the month is comedy night, featuring local and national talent. Next one: Sept. 16.

Chef Tony's is across the street from a municipal parking garage and three blocks from the Bethesda Metro station.


Chef Tony Marciante says it best on his restaurant’s ‘‘blog” when he describes the ongoing lunchtime panini contest between himself and co-owner and co-chef Iddi Diarra. His words — ‘‘It’s not that complicated, and all in good fun” — could easily be about Visions, their cozy and welcoming new restaurant that occupies a long narrow slice of St. Elmo Avenue in Bethesda. Even the LED readout on the electric heater in the front door says, ‘‘HI.”

Perched on stools at the bar, we sat next to a couple of appetizer crawlers. Two friends who were spending the evening working their way down a short list of new restaurants, walking in without reservations, looking for the opportunity to sit at the bar, order most of the appetizers and hobnob with the bartender. Since the bar juts out from the kitchen, the food was delivered by Chef Tony himself, who happily engaged them and us in conversation.  Turns out he and his partner Iddi worked in a number of restaurants and boldly took the leap to open their own self-proclaimed Modern American Bistro. The menu may target a similar taste as a Houston’s or a McCormick & Schmick’s, but the language is more playful, and the food, more intimate and hand crafted. The house potatoes are ‘‘smashed,” an exclamation point appears after the word RARE to emphasize how the tuna must be served, and the short-hand abbreviation XVOO is used for extra virgin olive oil.

Unlike the large franchises, the two chefs proclaim a pride in fresh ingredients, adjusting the menu to the season. It is a joy to watch good cooks make the food you eat, and this is the case at Visions since most of the food is prepared by one of the two chefs, and the small kitchen is in full view of most of the front dining room and bar.

Our dinner included a masterfully rolled and fried crawfish egg roll that is worthy of the better than adequate Thai peanut dipping sauce that accompanied it. The trio of soups sported really cool bowls, each one was very good by itself, and they complimented each other as a ‘‘flight” of soup. The beef short ribs appetizer was slightly tough and wanted something a little more interesting than straight teriyaki as a dipping sauce. The crispy calamari had its own nifty swirled iron basket and was accompanied by a zippy aioli. And I envied the filet mignon satay that was delivered to my neighbor.

Of the entrees, the catfish was clearly cooked by a hand practiced at southern cuisine. The marinara sauce in the signature dish, Dad’s Pasta with Crab Tomato Sauce, was superb with plenty of crab. The plate would have been content with half the pasta.

A cheerful eagerness is built into the laid-back presentation, an affability that extends to the quirky and personal Web site. This is a place where it is appropriate for the chefs to wander around the dining room and chat with guests. A rambunctious party occupied the back room of about 45 seats, but was remote from the rest of the dining area.

The atmosphere of dim light, pendant lamps, unstarched white table clothes and a little too much Sade on the stereo makes it feel crowd friendly, unfussy — jeans are perfectly acceptable — and simple rather than dazzling or sophisticated.

It’s the kind of place that takes the edge off a first date or makes it worth getting a babysitter just to spend an hour kicking back with a few appetizers at the bar and talking to the guys who cook the food and own the place.


by Bradford Pearson | Staff Writer

Laurie DeWitt/The Gazette
Andrew Pike, revenue manager for the Hyatt Regency Bethesda, poses in the hotel lobby. Pike, along with other Bethesda professionals, uses the social networking site Twitter to drum up business for his hotel.

Do you want two free nights at the Hyatt Regency Bethesda? How about two free glasses of house wine at Visions Restaurant? Or maybe baseball's more your speed, and you want $2 off your ticket at a Bethesda Big Train game?

Well, there's only one way to get all these recession-beating deals: Twitter.

"Whether it's a little restaurant in Bethesda, or a huge corporation in Mountain View, Calif., Twitter is a huge opportunity to draw people to your business," said Tony Marciante, chef and owner of Visions Restaurant in Bethesda's Woodmont Triangle neighborhood, (username: ChefTony). "It's all about building relationships."

Twitter is a social networking Web site, where members can post 140-character updates. Twitter users can access the updates, which many small businesses use to post specials, the night's menus, or happenings in the area. The site had more than 9.3 million users as of April, according to comScore Inc., which studies digital marketing.

Andrew Pike, revenue manager at the Hyatt Regency Bethesda (Hyatt_Bethesda), started Tweeting for his hotel earlier this year and has gained more than 400 followers — fellow Twitter users who sign up to receive the Hyatt's updates.

As a special for the hotel's Twitter followers, the Hyatt is giving away two free nights, transportation from the airport, and a $100 gift certificate to Morton's the Steakhouse to a randomly selected follower at the end of the month.

Pike said the site is an important tool to connect with other Washington, D.C.-area businesses.

"[Twitter is] a great way for us to find out about things going on in the area, and then utilizing them to promote the hotel," he said. "When I first signed up I went and followed everything, looked for all the restaurants in the area. It's still early, but it's worked so far."

And it isn't just service industry professionals signing up. Real estate agents (PotomacRealtor) and furniture store owners (DWRBethesda) in Potomac and Bethesda have also made the leap.

Social media enthusiasts describe Twitter — and Facebook, MySpace and the dozens of other social networking tools — as a terrific way for small businesses to engage customers on levels that were once available only to larger businesses that could afford national advertising campaigns.

"You can reach people in a more direct manner and those conversations can be listened to by many," said John Moore, a spokesman for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association in Chicago.

Bryan Ohringer, assistant general manager of the Bethesda Big Train (gobigtrain), said the team uses the site to draw new fans to its games.

"Anything we can do to get people to a ballpark on a Thursday is huge for us," he said. "So if that means starting Twitter Thursdays, and offering $2 off tickets for people who mention Twitter at the gate, so be it."

Ohringer said he often updates the team's Twitter page right after a game ends, so fans not at Shirley Povich Field can have up-to-the-minute results.

Chef Tony of Visions Restaurant recently started posting video links from events at the restaurant and is now branching out into social media consulting, helping other small business owners take the Twitter plunge.

"You never know who you're going to reach," he said. "Someone's cousin lives in Bethesda, or they're traveling to D.C., and they stop in. On the surface it looks like ‘Why bother?' but it's a powerful tool."

Staff Writer Lindsey Robbins contributed to this report.