Westend Bistro: Restaurant Review

Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert
1190 22nd St., NW
Washington, DC, 20037
(202) 974-4900
http://www.westendbistrodc.com/

Once upon a time, back when I used to live in Little Rock, when you spent a lot of money on dinner, you were generally guaranteed a great meal along with it. Price and quality went hand in hand, and you could use the high price of a restaurant as a guarantee of fine dining. As that old, overused mantra goes, you get what you pay for.

DC is different. High prices can be a trap for the unwary. The more experience I get at the different restaurants in town, the more I realize that too-often a high priced meal does not deliver on the presumed level of high quality. All too often, either service will be lacking, the food will be average, or there will be a combination of the two. Maybe it’s to trap tourists who come in from places like Little Rock, expecting an expensive dinner to deliver a fine dining experience. Maybe it’s a way of filtering out the truly food savvy, requiring them to navigate a veritable culinary jungle in search of the ultimate good food, the real quality dining experiences. Maybe you’re really just paying for a name, a location, the atmosphere, or even the chef, but not the food.

Like too many bad first dates, the beginning always looks promising, but eventually you come to realize that this experience just isn’t going to live up to expectations.

I’m lucky enough to be in a group of friends with highly cultivated taste buds. We might be young, but dammit we know what’s good food and what’s not. We might all come from different backgrounds, but through some sort of similar food training, either through parents or whatever, we’ve all come to be able to discern quality from pretending.

When you’re riding a roller coaster, and it’s making that first steep climb before plumeting and rocketing around the track, your anticipation builds and builds, the excitement builds and builds, you’re prepping yourself for that first jolting drop. What if after all this expectation, it just reached the top and stopped? What if that was the end of the ride, and you had to get out?

I first heard about Westend Bistro when I was waiting for Income Tax Accounting class to start. My friends and I were all clustered at one end of the room, and someone started talking about it as an option for dinner out that night. We looked at the website. The chef was famous (there’s more than a few Top Chef fans in the group), the photographs of the food were impressive, the menu was interesting, it was located in the Ritz hotel, and the prices were high.

The interior of the restaurant is dimly lit with a warm, reddish-orange hue, with dark, deep wood accenting the chairs, booths and bar. Most patrons were dressed in black, and I felt lucky that I had decided to wear dark denim trousers and a navy top. You couldn’t help feeling like part of the trendy crowd in this neauvoux restaurant.

The wine list was decently varied with a wide range of prices, all the way up to 20 a glass for Cakebread chardonnay. There was also a special cocktail menu, but I didn’t have a chance to check it out.  Most everyone had either chosen their entree ahead of time online or had at least considered the options during class, so I was pleased to see a specials menu resting on top of the regular dinner menu. I ordered my entire meal off of the specials menu, partly because some items I simply had to try, and partly because the specials are generally the best dishes.

For my appetizer, I ordered the Farm Fresh Headcheese. I had heard of headcheese and knew it was made of less traditional ingredients (read: something your average American isn’t going to cook with), and therefore I had to try it. I texted Jay after ordering to ask him what was in it, and when he replied “brains,” that info shot down the table in multiple exclamations with various intonations. Two of my friends, Matt and Katy, ordered the headcheese without knowing it wasn’t cheese per se, and they weren’t exactly thrilled. A little later, Matt asked a waiter about it and clarified that it was pig face, rather than brains. I would have eaten it anyway (I’ve been wanting to try brains at a kabob shop in Virginia for a while now), but others were pleasantly relieved.

The headcheese itself rested on top of a great dill sauce and was topped with a tangy mustard sauce. I don’t remember what the fried extra was that accompanied the headcheese. All I know is that it was extremely hard (I think it led to the breaking of a filling) and not very flavorful. The headcheese itself was very good. The texture was firm but with just enough yield, and the flavor itself was not overly rich. After my first bite, I thought it tasted a lot like tuna fish, but I think the dill sauce gave rise to that opinion. The mustard sauce was peppered with mustard seeds and was both sweet and sour. The sauces married very well together, and I ended up eating everything. Except for the salad, which was plainly unremarkable and probably on the plate only to serve as a source of green color.

My entree, which was also on the special menu, was monkfish with chorizo sausage, fingerling potatoes and roasted vegetables, topped with a squid ink sauce. It’s at this point where the roller coaster stopped at the top and got off. Although it was quite dramatic when my waiter poured the squid ink sauce on top of my fish, that was the only worthwhile part of this dish. The monkfish itself had a nice texture but no flavor, the sausage was too salty and did not blend in and complement the rest of the dish, the potatoes and vegetables did little more than provide a base for the fish and were likewise without flavor, and the squid ink sauce did little more than add black color. I think the perfect description for the flavor of the entire dish is mediocre.

My friend Meredith ordered the skate and let me have a bite. Again, the texture was nice but the flavor just wasn’t there. Her skate came with a side of escarole that was evidently inedible, because Meredith barely touched it. She said the flavor was too strong, and it likely completely overpowered the lightness of the skate. The visual aesthetics of her dish weren’t very pleasing either: mostly brown and dark colors, without any pop of green. Where’s the obligatory salad to provide some extra color? Personally, I thought the escarole looked like a bunch of slugs pressed flat and stacked on top of each other.

My friend Matt ordered lamb paired with beans (no image). He said the lamb was good, but that the beans overpowered the delicate flavor of the lamb, and that the dish as a whole was not cohesive. Sounds familiar? This was the general impression of the restaurant as a whole. When we had all finished our entrees, everyone looked around the table, searching everyone else’s faces and silently asking, “Is that it?” We had expected so much, and we were delivered next to nothing.

Despite the massive let down brought by the entres, I decided to give dessert a try. I ordered yet another special, grilled figs with cinnamon mascarpone cream and topped with a candied walnut. As if the food itself knew it needed to redeem itself, this dessert really shined. The deep sweetness of the fig and the caramalized sugar from the grilling paired exquisitely with the creaminess and slight heat of the mascarpone and the salty crunchiness of the candied walnut. The fig halves themselves were small enough to get all of these flavors in a single bite, and the marriage of flavors in your mouth, with each highlighting and playing off the others, was truly magnificent.

Despite the fact that the appetizer and dessert were very good, the lackluster entres completely spoiled the meal. This is especially given the fact that nothing was cheap. Although I felt that the prices for the appetizers and desserts were justified, there really is no excuse for the entrees. Nothing lived up to expectations, and nothing rose above the level of average and mediocre. I know I’ve had better food in Little Rock and Charlottesville than this, and I’m pretty damn certain I can cook better than this myself. I guess when you’re connected to the Ritz hotel, you can justify just about anything. Maybe you can justify it to yourself, but you can’t pretend to your customers when you execute the main course so poorly.

Would I go back? Will I go back? Yes, but only for appetizers and desserts over a few glasses of wine. I considered coming back to get a steak, but I don’t think it would be worth it. This review kind of reminds me of Ceviche, which is good for a glass of wine and ceviche, but little else.

When I walked out of the restaurant, I grabbed a post card with a picture of some very good looking mussels on the front (incidentally, another appetizer, so yes, I would go back for these). On the back is a quote from Eric Ripert himself, which I can’t help but reproduce here: “Cooking is an art. Cooking is not about construction, it’s about flavor.”

Eric, please remember these words, and let’s try to fix the flavor of your entrees, or at least get your chef who cooks when you’re out of town to make them taste good.

Westend Bistro wrapup: two thin slices of awesome surrounding a huge slab of mediocre.

EDIT: In the interest of full disclosure, my friend Katie said her steak and green beans were very good. Maybe steak is the thing to order here.

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