Washington Enjoys Limelight in World of Culinary Celebrity
This month, the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” will air an episode filmed in Washington in which Michelle Obama announces the “secret ingredient” to the chefs — who in turn will be using ingredients that were grown in the Obamas’ White House vegetable garden.
Last year, a previous “Iron Chef” winner, the ever-colorful local restauranteur José Andrés of Jaleo fame, shared some of his mini plates with pal Anthony Bourdain for the latter’s “No Reservations” show on the Travel Channel, which regularly spotlights the nation’s capital. Meanwhile, the recent sixth season of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef” series featured three Washington area chefs — Michael Isabella of Zaytinya, Jesse Sandlin of Baltimore, Md., and Bryan Voltaggio of Volt Restaurant in Frederick, Md. — while former “Top Chef” contestants such as Carla Hall of Alchemy Caterers and Spike Mendelsohn of Good Stuff Eatery have become fixtures on the D.C. dining scene. Rumors have even swirled that the nation’s capital may host the seventh season of the popular reality series (the first season featured no one from the D.C. area; practically all of the chefs came from New York or California).
Of course, the notion of cooking and celebrity have been intertwined ever since Julia Child flipped her first omelet, a trend that continues today with the widespread crossover appeal of big-name culinary stars. And it’s not just the Gordon Ramsays hogging the attention, but industry celebs such as Thomas Keller and Jean-Georges Vongerichten that get foodies salivating.
Once largely confined to dining rooms in New York City and California, the Washington restaurant scene has earned its own celebrity status over the years, not only taking the limelight in shows like “Top Chef” and “Hell’s Kitchen” but also attracting New York’s notable chefs to set up shop in D.C.
This trend has gone hand in hand with the explosion of high-profile hotels throughout the city. Today, the hotel restaurant is no longer an afterthought or way-station for weary travelers, but an indispensable ingredient for any property’s success. Maybe it doesn’t have the likes of a Charlie Palmer or Wolfgang Puck at the helm (both of whom incidentally have a presence in D.C.), but it better at least have an exec chef with a substantial resume and reputation, and a unique vision to boot.
For many Washingtonians, Michel Richard’s Citronelle in the Latham Hotel personified this culinary-hospitality fusion, though it’s interesting to note that a recent survey by Washingtonian magazine readers ranked Citronelle as the “most overpriced” and “most overrated” restaurant in the area. Equally interesting is the fact that Citronelle’s sister restaurant, Central Michel Richard, was voted the second-best restaurant overall — perhaps a nod to Central’s focus on comfort food and affordability, versus Citronelle’s costly craftsmanship.
Times, and tastes, change. A big name is a start but it can’t sustain a restaurant, especially in such a constantly evolving — and turbulent — industry. So The Washington Diplomat took a look at a few hotel dining heavy hitters — a mix of new and old, at least by restaurant standards — to gauge how they’re faring in this somewhat inhospitable economy.
Their approaches vary, though each is pulling out all the stops to turn a profit, or at least stay solvent. And each has largely adhered to the movement toward locally sourced, sustainable menus — though from there anything goes.
The list is hardly exhaustive. Notably missing are Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s J&G Steakhouse in the new W Hotel, Susur Lee’s Zentan in the Donovan House (see “Culinary Zen” dining review in the October 2009 issue) and Art Smith’s Art and Soul in the Liaison Capitol Hill (see “Heartfelt Art” dining review in the December 2008 issue), though the omissions simply give us an excuse for a follow-up story. But this does offer a healthy sampling of the culinary creativity, business acumen and star power that top-tier hotel restaurants are employing to turn up the heat on their competition.
Keeping Up the Ritz
Eric Ripert’s Westend Bistro has been quietly humming along in the Ritz-Carlton on 22nd Street for a little more than two years now — to its credit preserving much of the energetic buzz that often fades after a restaurant’s initial opening.
In stark contrast to Ripert’s acclaimed Michelin three-star mecca in New York, Le Bernardin, Westend is the Beard Foundation-winning chef’s first “casual neighborhood American bistro,” which may in part account for its popularity as a Washington lunchtime hotspot. The massive windows encircling the 96-seat restaurant also most likely appeal to powerbrokers eager to see and be seen by the street traffic outside.
But casual shouldn’t be confused with nonchalant. The fare at Westend is billed as a blend of contemporary American cuisine featuring local ingredients and French flavors from Provence and the French Riviera — a reflection of Ripert’s French background and training. So a traditional ham and cheese is anything but, with truffled ham oozing in luscious gruyere cheese.
Other lunchtime favorites include the fish burger with fennel, oven-roasted tomato, saffron aioli and bouillabaisse (or just go for the hearty classic burger); the bottom market salad dressed in a truffle vinaigrette; and what is hands-down the best version of macaroni and cheese in the city, featuring bits of ham that elevate the classic comfort food to a new level.
It’s all seemingly simple but also just plain tasty. Yet Westend offers plenty of sophistication that makes it a fine dinner destination as well. Ripert’s staple starter is the tuna carpaccio, thin but bursting with flavor and superbly executed with just the right amount of extra virgin olive oil, chives, shallots and lemon. Likewise, the beef tartare is beautifully pulled together with a quail egg, pickled mushrooms and bavarian relish, with each element packing its own punch while complementing the beef.
On the entrée side, the wild striped bass with carolina gold rice, asian spices, almonds and raisins was streaming out of the kitchen on a recent evening, but for a different seafood option, try the skate, a difficult-to-master fish that’s overlooked by many places. Beautifully splayed in geometric precision across the expanse of the plate, the delicate fish was cooked perfectly and subtly enhanced by a brown butter sauce.
Joe Palma, Westend’s chef de cuisine, executes Ripert’s vision gracefully, having worked as sous chef at Le Bernardin prior to his arrival in Washington. With degrees in economics and philosophy, diners can chat with Palma about a variety of subjects at “Dinner at the Pass,” whereby two dinners can share the space separating Westend’s kitchen from the dining room. A spin off the traditional “chef’s table” concept within the kitchen, “the pass” is more like a bar seat right in front of the kitchen, where you can talk to the chefs and watch the action. It offers the best of both worlds for those who want an inside view of the cooking, without the intrusion of actually being inside a bustling — and let’s be honest, not-always-glamorous — kitchen. In addition, the laidback chefs are easy to talk with, whether you’re a food expert or not, and likewise the genuinely personable staff make the experience a welcoming but informative one.
The idea for the pass was introduced earlier this year. In a sense, it confirms the notion that no matter how successful a restaurant becomes, it invariably has to stay inventive to stay in the game. Westend is no exception, though it’s avoided being too gimmicky by sticking to events that showcase its charms.
For example, the sleek but earthy elliptical marble bar and cocktail tables set against a gold leaf wall are a focal point of the restaurant and a natural setting for happy hour specials. To that end, Westend’s “Off the Hill Happy Hour” throughout the week is a popular draw, with half-priced cocktails by mixologist Jeremy Onesko, who brews up appropriately themed concoctions such as the Spicy Senator (Grey Goose vodka, fresh olive juice and jalapeño juice garnished with a sweet baby pepper and cayenne powder on the rim) and the Lobbyist (tomatoes, cilantro, lime juice, Patron Silver and Cointreau liquor).
Another weekly event centered around another Ripert-related personality of sorts, Jennifer Carroll, one of the contestants on the recent season of “Top Chef.” As a show of support for Carroll, who is chef Palma’s former colleague at Le Bernardin and current head of sister restaurant 10 Arts Bistro & Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia, the Ritz in D.C. hosted “Top Chef Wednesdays at Westend Bistro,” featuring viewings of the show and Carroll’s signature warm soft pretzels with creamy cheddar sauce, jalapeño jam and dijon mustard.
Carroll made a strong showing on “Top Chef” but didn’t make it to the final. That’s alright — her culinary career isn’t likely to run out of steam anytime soon, nor does it look like Westend is anywhere near the end of its run.
Of Seasons and Steak
No venerable hotel worth its name can rest on its laurels, and Four Seasons is no exception. After a million renovation in 2008, the Georgetown hotel’s widely anticipated Bourbon Steak restaurant – the 16th in Michael Mina’s dining empire, including his fourth Bourbon Steak property – just celebrated its first anniversary (also see “Spirited Debut” dining review in the February 2009 issue).
Though somewhat sparse, the modern space remains striking and fresh – to the chagrin of some regulars who preferred the more traditional comfort of the old Garden Terrace. But Bourbon Steak’s rich brown overtones and wood-dominated focus better complement the refined elegance seen throughout the updated property. And the ultra-private booths offer a nice contrast to the otherwise open, airy feel of the restaurant, which still attracts a large number of Washington powerbrokers for lunch.
And crowds still turn out to try Mina’s staple cooking method – steak (and sometimes seafood) decadently slow-poached in butter. Although some critics have frowned on the buttery bath, praising Bourbon Steak more for its seafood than its actual steak, that critique overlooks an important point: People who pay for a 28-ounce aged porterhouse, or for that matter a staggering 5 for a six-ounce A5 Japanese wagyu, expect not only good meat, but a boat-load of decadence. And here, for the average carnivore, Mina’s treatment satisfies, especially with the dry-aged New York strip.
The hearty approach also carries over to the equally decadent french fries (three varieties, including a superb black truffle variety) and perfectly falling-apart, melt-in-your-mouth bread rolls that justify the type of financial and culinary splurge that Bourbon Steak epitomizes.
Of course, all the hype over Bourbon Steak’s seafood is also justified, distinguishing it from other steakhouses. Any choice from the wood-burning grill beautifully captures the essence of the fish, whether the Scottish salmon or Belize cobia, but the standout – and Mina’s signature dish – is the lobster pot pie. A masterpiece in taste, preparation and presentation, the tender lobster is artfully constructed at the table, with baby vegetables, wild mushrooms and a succulent brandied lobster cream pulling the creation together.
And like any work of art, it will cost you – to be exact. Is it worth it? Yes, but here Bourbon Steak inevitably runs into economic reality. During a recent visit, a group who freely ordered pricey dinner entrées was nevertheless overheard asking the waiter if the bar had shortchanged them on their drink pours. The lavish and highly original cocktail menu is certainly worth an average price of per drink, but it just goes to show that nowadays cost can’t be taken for granted.
Perhaps as a nod to that reality, Bourbon Steak’s talented young yet refreshingly unpretentious chef, David Varley, introduced a three-course pre-theater dinner menu for per person that is one of the best fine-dining deals in town.
Other promotions to keep Bourbon’s buzz going include the introduction of “Bourbon and Blues,” an evening featuring local musicians every Thursday that energizes the already-popular lounge area.
Mandarin Gets Down-Home
Indeed, the down-home intentions of Sou’Wester seem almost incongruous to its home base, the ultra-luxe Mandarin Oriental, which may be a sign that no one is immune to the downturn. Whatever the reasons behind Sou’Wester, one word of advice: Take advantage of the generosity.
No matter how casual, this is still the Mandarin – and the culinary genius of Ziebold, under whose direction Southern-inspired food becomes simply inspired.
The understated menu descriptions – chicken and dumplings, Maryland blue crab bisque – don’t even begin to hint at the technically precise wizardry behind some of these comfort classics. Here, old-fashioned grits become new again, served with a delicately poached egg and surprisingly delicious pieces of sweetbreads. The crab fritters come with a green goddess dressing that earns its regal name (though the bulb onions seem like an extraneous afterthought); the blackened bluefish rivals the best Cajun cooking you’ll find in New Orleans; while the fried chicken tastes anything but fried – crisp and dry yet drenched in mouth-watering flavor. And it costs a grand .
Admittedly, Sou’Wester – named because the expansive dining room overlooks the Southwest waterfront – may have a tough time balancing its upscale-down-home quasi-personality, especially within the confines of the Mandarin. The décor remains a work in progress – a dramatic yet bare contemporary interior that’s awkwardly reminiscent of Café MoZu and says nothing about its Southern roots – at least not yet (I’m told more changes are coming).
Nowhere is this incongruity more evident than in the service. Don’t get me wrong – it’s exactly what you’d expect in the Mandarin, but the parade of wait staff ready to tend to your every need can seem overwhelming when you’re chowing on fried chicken and sipping a root-beer float spiked with Jack Daniel’s whiskey.
But that rarefied attention to detail is tempered by the staff’s ability to genuinely adapt to each table. Our waiter for instance was able to dissect the differences between sweetbreads (throat of the calf versus pancreas and other varieties) while deftly advising a visiting family of four which D.C. monuments the kids would like seeing.
At that table, the children enjoyed hush puppies while the parents tried a bottle of cabernet from the impressive wine list. And perhaps therein lies the promise – and not the apparent paradox – of Sou’Wester, whose hominess may be a welcome break for some, but whose deliciously inventive dishes won’t let down the discerning diner.
Love of the Finer Things at Adour
On the contrary, Adour, the dining centerpiece at the St. Regis hotel, doesn’t hide its gourmand pedigree. An offspring of the Adour St. Regis in New York, the Washington sibling takes its cue from famed founder Alain Ducasse, the Michelin-star-laden chef who has more than 20 restaurants scattered around the world.
Ducasse’s style is unabashedly sophisticated and occasionally over the top (he raised eyebrows by offering New York diners a choice of designer pens with which to sign their checks) and although it’s deservedly proud of its upscale lineage, the Adour in Washington is meant to be a slightly dressed-down Ducasse showcase, tailored to D.C. urbanites rather than Manhattan trendsetters.
After having opened to great fanfare in September 2008, the restaurant is still perfecting its approach to striking that right combination of “casual elegance.” Of course, it’s no easy feat opening a high-end restaurant in the midst of the worst economic downturn in decades, but after rolling out a new menu in December and making a few tweaks, Adour seems to be finding its stride as a welcomingly unpretentious fine dining establishment.
Clean elegance abounds in the David Rockwell-designed space. The tablecloths have been removed, revealing sparkling white tables that accent the soft leather chairs, all set against a background of perfectly lined stacks of wine bottles that seem to envelope the dining room. The glass walls of wine are appropriate given the concept behind the restaurant, where the wine list is meant to highlight the menu and its focus on seasonal ingredients.
And with a selection of some 600 wines, there’s no shortage of choices to find the ideal match. Knowledgeable, personable staff and sommeliers take the guesswork out of what can be an initially intimidating process for even the most trained wine aficionado. (Adour also periodically hosts wine seminars led by wine director Ramon Narvaez for bargain rates throughout the year, in addition interactive cooking classes with renowned pastry chef Fabrice Bendano.)
It’s definitely got the wine portion down pat, and the restaurant also seems to be finding its footing on the food front as well. Executive chef Julien Jouhannaud succeeds in translating Ducasse’s exacting standards, offering carefully thought-out dishes tinged with French influences – and the new menu solidifies Adour’s ambitions.
Standouts include many of the seafood appetizers, including succulently sweet Maine lobster medallions (punctuated by wild apple from a family-operated farm in Virginia), an exquisite black tiger shrimp cocktail as well as yellow fin tuna tartare. The dry-cured Iberico de Bellota pork ham is also worth the splurge. The only letdown was the seared foie gras, which, though excellently prepared, was simply too overwhelming a portion for an appetizer.
Among the entrées, a highlight is the perfectly seared John Dory done à la meunière with braised salsify, walnuts and an Arbois wine sauce that brings out the fish’s mild yet delectable flavor. Though the seafood is deftly handled, you simply cannot go wrong with any of the meat choices – Colorado lamb rack, Kurobuta pork loin, filet mignon with black truffle sauce and a Black Angus bone-in ribeye are all surprisingly complex delights that can be paired with your choice of sauces (béarnaise, black peppercorn, bordelaise, barbeque and cornich’ onion) and sides such as the heavenly smooth potato puree.
Though Adour’s prices are in line with its competitors, chef Jouhannaud seems cognizant of the perils of operating an upscale restaurant in a cost-conscious economy. To that end, the new menu offers half- and full-portion sizes – so the Maine lobster medallion appetizer can also be had for a more reasonable . And a best bet remains the tasting menu (five courses for ), which admirably reflects the breadth of Jouhannaud’s abilities. Adour is also participating in DC Restaurant Week in January, offering a three-course dinner for .09.
“We are still new in town, so we need to listen and see what the guests like,” Jouhannaud told The Washington Diplomat. “Every day you have to give them a new challenge … but people here give you time to make your business successful.”
Jockeying for the Glory
Though steakhouses and power lunches are still abundant, Washington has certainly shed its stuffy dining reputation. Now we have Afghan cafés, celebrity New York transplants and even a minibar specializing in so-called “molecular gastronomy.”
But in this culinary evolution, it’s also important not to completely abandon what makes this town tick. Experimentation is necessary, but so is the preservation of tradition. Maybe the city’s quintessential dark, clubby dens have given way to stylish steakhouses, but there’s something to be said of that plush, stately dining room where old power still gathers for a nice quiet meal.
The newly restored Jockey Club inside the Fairfax Hotel at Embassy Row is hoping to revive that classic Washington dining experience. Initially inspired by New York’s legendary eatery “21,” the Jockey Club opened in 1961 and quickly attracted the city’s political elite. Over the years though, the restaurant and hotel lost their luster, suffering from an identity crisis under a series of different owners.
Now a member of Starwood Hotels, the Fairfax is vowing to recapture “the grace and elegance of a bygone era,” bringing back the storied dining room while infusing it with fresh talent and vision.
Enter chef Levi Mezick, who trained under famed French chef Daniel Boulud, most recently serving as sous chef in his Michelin-starred Daniel in New York. The hotel is counting on Mezick to restore the Jockey Club to its former glory while putting a new spin on the restaurant’s contemporary French-based menu.
The formula for success is certainly there. Red leather banquettes and plaid tablecloths, against a backdrop of fox-and-hound-themed artwork, hearken back to the heyday of Washington power dining. The menu is anchored with solid dishes (Dover sole, butter-poached lobster and the duo of short rib and seared strip loin are sure to be crowd favorites), though Mezick is still very new and hasn’t had the chance to hit his stride yet (some items, such as the butternut squash soup, completely fall flat). Service too was attentive but at times awkwardly rigid, the result of being new and eager to please.
But the ingredients are all there – along with a lingering appreciation among diners for Washington’s historical legacy – it will just depend on the execution. “We’ve taken what was a pre-eminent restaurant for 20, 25 years and breathed new life into it,” said David Bodette, assistance general manager. “Just like the new administration, we have a great opportunity for something new.”
About the Author
Anna Gawel is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat and news columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.