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Alison Swope Constructs Masterful Menu at K Street Venture

Connecticut and K is currently the site of a massive building demolition project, and on a recent balmy spring evening, diners at Restaurant K got ringside seats to the action. As the wrecking ball bashed away at a big nearby commercial building, diners safely inside were treated to a gentler lesson in construction at the hands of talented gastronomic architect, Alison Swope.

Swope opened her newest venture last fall in the spot that had briefly housed a steakhouse called Jimmy’s on K. Not much has been done to the interior. Dark woods, earth tones and clean, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Usonian lines still prevail, although colorful prints brighten the walls with a slightly iconoclastic touch while reed mats have replaced the white linen table cloths. But don’t let the slightly staid downtown business lunch décor fool you — this restaurant is anything but a typical expense account haven. Although Restaurant K is owned by the larger McCormick & Schmick’s restaurant group, Swope has brought her distinctive mark to the menu.

Chef Swope has been building her culinary repertoire at local venues for more than 20 years, but it was her early experience running the kitchen at an 18th-century living history museum and working farm that taught her to cook using everything at hand. Working on a commercial truck farm further reinforced her understanding of where food comes from and what it takes to produce it.

These early experiences are reflected in her emphasis on seasonal and locally produced ingredients. Starting from this perspective, Swope builds on traditional comfort foods to produce unique creations that she characterizes as “modern American.”

Case in point: One of the most distinctive dishes on the menu is a maritime version of shepherd’s pie. The typical meat ingredients are replaced with poached lobster, jumbo lump blue crabmeat and sweet corn in a creamy sauce that’s lightly seasoned with fresh tarragon and cognac and topped with a big dollop of rich, smooth mashed potatoes. Leftovers never tasted like this before.

Just in time for spring break, Restaurant K has recently introduced a new menu. The “South by Southwest” collection reflects Swope’s travels south of the border and more strongly reprises her previous restaurant ventures, Andale in D.C. and Santa Fe East in Alexandria, Va.

Appetizers from her travels to Mexico include a rockfish ceviche. Bite-size chunks of fish accented with cubes of mango and avocado make for a mild and sweet version of the traditional ceviche, with barely any citrus bite from the lime used to cure it, and none of the traditional jalapeño bite. Swope also offers a delicious queso fundido, a bubbling pot of Chihuahua cheese mixed with chorizo, roasted poblano chilies and onion that you can scoop up with warm homemade flour tortillas.

Heading north, the menu offers the Southern classic fried green tomatoes. Sliced, crusted with corn meal and parmesan, and then pan fried, the tomatoes should be excellent. Unfortunately they are barely cooked and the crust is slightly oily, making this dish a bit disappointing despite the tasty accompanying goat cheese, chopped spicy pecans and a kicky corn salsa garnish.

Swope has great fun and success with the salads though. Mixed baby greens are tossed with sweet breakfast radishes, farro grain, feta cheese and sherry vinaigrette for a perfect spring-summer starter. The roasted beet salad is more robust, with shaved fennel, baby arugula and gorgonzola cheese. New to the menu is an orange jicama salad. Crunchy thin strips of jicama, sweet orange slices and tiny baby spinach leaves dressed with a flowery hibiscus vinaigrette make you suspect that Swope’s forays down South took her to tropical climes.

Among the entrées, Swope marries cultural traditions in her presentation of cochinita pibil. She takes this traditional Mexican dish from the Yucatan and slow-roasts the pork shank with achiote, sour orange juice and garlic, serving it with cider-braised greens and pickled onions. A happy union indeed. The pork, practically melting off the bone, pairs perfectly with the classic Southern barbeque sides. This is one thing Restaurant K and its cousin McCormick & Schmick’s have in common: great big hunks of meat for the carnivorous — a bit of a surprise for this type of intricate cooking, but not at all unwelcome when the dish is as tasty as this one.

Some of the dishes from the earlier menu are still there, giving diners an eclectic set of choices. The remaining pasta dish, buckwheat papardelle, is mild and makes a nice backdrop for the slightly bitter rapini, mellow walnuts and sweet dried cherries mixed in. The pasta is dressed in olive oil and gorgonzola, which unifies the dish nicely. The cheese is blinkingly sharp, however, and may be too strong for some.

For pure satisfaction, try the shrimp and sea scallops with grits. This reworking of a Gulf Coast favorite is nearly perfect. Plump scallops and shrimp are pan sautéed and served with buttery, garlicky baby spinach and a heap of cheesy, coarse grits that have an unusual texture and taste, as though they had been mixed with mashed potatoes.

For vegetarians, a good choice is either the Basmati rice cake or coarse ground cheese grits paired with oven-dried tomatoes, vegetable picadillo, black beans and wilted greens. Although both are nice, the grits-based dish offers a fuller flavor.

Restaurant K’s bar offers some interesting cocktails made with house-infused liquors that showcase Swope’s mastery of complex flavors and textures. The lemon basil margarita starts with fresh basil mashed with lemon and tequila that’s then mixed with orange-infused brandy and a lemon-infused simple syrup. Best of all perhaps is the mango margarita, which starts with a rich mango purée and then layers in orange brandy with a hint of limejuice for a taste so sweet and smooth that you might think you are starting your meal backward.

Although you certainly could make dessert out of the drink choices, you would miss another of Swope’s triumphs if you skipped her sweet offerings. Unlike the entrées, the desserts are not large so even after a full meal they are not overwhelming — even something as rich as the chocolate cream pie. Served with a sour cherry coulis and toasted almond crust, it’s like eating a dense chocolate mousse with a fork. The cheesecake — subtle white chocolate with a coconut crust and sweet berry sauce — is light and slightly grainy and a perfect finish to the meal.

Homemade ice cream and sorbets are a lighter alternative, and just the thing for warmer evenings. The basil ice cream is refreshing and proves just how versatile that wonderful herb can be. The coconut lime sorbet sounds wonderful but doesn’t live up to its name. Though the texture is perfect, the sorbet has no bite from either the lime or the coconut flavor, and it has an unexpected perfume-like overtone that detracts from its appeal.

The service issues that plagued the restaurant when it opened have largely been ironed out. Staff are agreeable and accommodating, and the timing works. Even a request to revert to appetizers in the middle of the meal posed no challenges.

One of the best things about Restaurant K though may not last very long: There is a Friday and Saturday night special featuring three courses for .95 — a remarkable deal really. This, and the free hardhat sideshow across the street, may make Restaurant K the best deal in town right now.

Restaurant K 1700 K St., NW (202) 974-6545 www.restaurantkbyalisonswope.com

Breakfast: Tue. - Fri. from 7:30 - 10 a.m.

Lunch: Mon. - Fri. from 11:30 a.m. - 3 p.m.

Dinner: Mon. - Thu. from 5 - 10 p.m.; Fri. - Sat. from 5 - 11 p.m.

Bar: Mon. to Fri. from 11:30 a.m. - 10 p.m.; Sat. from 5 - 11 p.m. Happy Hour: Mon. - Fri. from 3 - 7 p.m.

Note: Restaurant K is closed Sunday.

Appetizers: .95 - .95 Main courses: .90 - .95 Desserts: .50

About the Author

Rachel Hunt is the restaurant reviewerfor The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999