Archive for October, 2009

Barton Seaver to be named Chef of the Year by Esquire

Glover Park restaurants have been struggling. Within the past year, at least 4 have closed their doors, moved, or completely reworked their menu. Yes, this year has also brought us Surfside, Z Burger, and Bruegers Bagels, but we lost Margarita’s Mexican, a solid place for good takeout, Busara moved away, Ceviche closed and reopened as Kitchen (a welcome change, Ceviche was highly overrated with mediocre-at-best food and a nearly non-existent wine list, especially for a self-proclaimed wine bar), and just the other week Pizza Hut shut its doors. The plague of boarded up restaurants extends beyond just this year, however, and it’s hard to miss the papered-over windows and empty buildings that spot our small stretch of Wisconsin. Not only has Glover Park been losing restaurants, but it’s been losing the sole purveyors of specific cuisines. Yeah sure, you can walk up or down Wisconsin to find Mexican, Italian, or Thai, but these places used to be in our neighborhood, and now they’re gone.

I was pretty unhappy when our local Thai restaurant Busara moved away. No longer could I stroll down the street from my apartment for some good, spicy curry or satisfying noodles. Now, I need to make a trek. Nearly every day, I walked past an empty, lonely, and dark building, staring into the vacant interior with the longing hope that something else would come to fill the space.

I waited.

Then, finally, little by little, things began to change. The “Busara” metal lettering and purple neon was removed from the exterior of the building. Boxes began to pile up behind the large glass doors. The exterior was completely altered and repainted. A logo appeared on the side of the building.

Needless to say, I was very excited when Blue Ridge first opened. I didn’t know much about the chef, Barton Seaver, but I knew he came from Hook, a heralded seafood restaurant in neighboring Georgetown. This fueled my anticipation, along with the concept for the restuarant and the long, wooden, old-looking bar that stretched away from the entrance. A new restaurant in the neighborhood, and a classy one at that? Yes please, sign me up.

And then it did open, and lo, the critics spoke.

Todd Kliman, from The Washingtonian: “The biggest disappointment is that Seaver’s flavors are timid: The redeye gravy that comes with fried eggs and a biscuit has no soulful punch, while an appetizer of fingerling-potato halves stuffed with the same pimiento cheese was bland.” As for the mission of the restaurant: “Blue Ridge is strong on the issues. But so far at least, there’s more to admire than desire.” The caption to the picture on the review states, “The serene patio at Blue Ridge, in DC’s Glover Park, aims to soothe the nerves. But the fashionably unfashionable cooking falls short of transporting.”

Tom Sietsema, from The Washington Post: In his review entitled, “It’s Downhill at Blue Ridge,” Sietsema writes that it sometimes tastes like the chef is overcommitted. “Count me among the disappointed diners.” He was surprised, “even a month after launch, to find [himself] pushing away some of the food he and his charge, chef John Murphy, were offering.” As for specific items of food, some things just don’t live up to expectations. “The most Southern notion, sweet potato fritters, sounds enticing, but the fried marbles turn out to be pasty in their centers, with an aftertaste reminiscent of underdone doughnuts. No thanks.” Furthermore, even though the “vegetable potpie sounds promising,” Sietsema knocks this promise away: “Four small rosemary-buttermilk biscuits provide a top crust, a clever idea that gets erased by your first taste of the filling. It’s a pale-yellow glue that is not quite solid, not quite liquid and definitely a waste of good vegetables.” The service gets inconsistent reviews as well.

Tim Carman from The Washington City Paper: “Yes, I understand the connection that Blue Ridge is making … What I don’t understand is why Blue Ridge’s kitchen can’t seem to cook those farm-to-table ingredients any better. I’ve visited Blue Ridge on three occasions now, and every time, the kitchen has screwed up one preparation or another. Once it was the bluefish, grilled into an almost moisture-less block and served with an overly bitter  mint-pecan pesto (which has since been ditched). Another time it was an heirloom tomato salad, served with bitter frisee and funk-forward smoked cheddar croutons, the entirety of which was salted as if the kitchen were trying to preserve the thing. Then there was the grilled pork loin, practically raw on one side and approaching medium on the other, or the broiled Rappahannock oysters that were drowning under a sea of herbs.”

Given this kind of criticism, you might not think that the food coming out of this kitchen would earn the head chef many accolades, especially not something like, oh, let’s say Esquire Magazine‘s “chef of the year,” or that the restaurant itself would be the best of the nation.

And there you would be wrong. In November, Esquire Magazine will name Seaver chef of the year.

Jane Black, also of The Washington Post, who congratulated Seaver in her All We Can Eat blog article last week for being named Esquire‘s “chef of the year,” stated that she was impressed by “Seaver’s vision and sensible sustainability.” Although she quotes Esquire Magazine‘s food critic John Mariani for praise of the food itself, Black herself never even comments on the food, only offering good words for Seaver’s advocacy for sustainability. It seems that ideas, purpose, and advocacy alone can get you named chef of the year. Forget about that whole cooking thing.

The news has sparked a debate on city food forums, including The Washingtonian’s Best Bites Blog. Much of the frustration comes from the fact that Mariani only ate at Blue Ridge once for lunch with a group of friends, and that Seaver knew Mariani was there. More than one commentator across the different forums has noted that perhaps it is Seaver’s publicist that got him the award. Maybe it’s his youth and good looks. A quick gloss over multiple reviews suggests that it’s not what counts, the food.

Not all reviews are negative, and those on yelp.com fall anywhere between excellent and terrible, with one advising other to-be restaurant goers to “Skip it.” Nevertheless, the general impression seems to be that the chef of the year title should have gone elsewhere, with most of the yelp criticism centering on the opinion that the food is too salty.

In the grand scheme of things, Seaver’s award might not be that big of a deal. The November issue of Esquire will come out, Blue Ridge will be nationally known, and my neighborhood will be crowded with all types of palettes. Some will claim it to be the best restaurant they’ve ever visited, others will see past the glitz and acclaim and actually pay attention to the food. Given the fact that I’ve never eaten there–on purpose–I can’t really comment on the quality, sadly. Although I will be grateful that my little neighborhood will finally have some business, I can’t help but wonder about any possible aftermath, whether the crowds will go as quickly as they will likely come, and how this is really going to fix our neighborhood restaurant blight.

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Enology

Enology Wine Bar
3238 Wisconsin Ave NW
Washington, DC 20016
(202) 362-0362

It’s the first night my mom is in town for a long weekend, and I have no idea where we’re going to dinner. This is very uncharacteristic. One of my favorite things to do is plan dinners, scouring reviews and recommendations online for hours before finally making the all-important reservation. VOLT was one of the first restaurants I scheduled, and it was long, long ago, followed by Rasika and then Zaytinya. This comforts me, makes it so I can sleep at night. I like having eveything on lock down.

For the night mom was flying in, however, it was all in the open.

Where would she want to go? Would she be up for the wait, crowd, and noise at 2 Amys, one of my most favorite casual places? Would she want Mexican from Cactus Cantina? Would she want to walk somewhere from her hotel (conveniently located 3 blocks from my apt), or would she be willing for the bigger pulse of Penn Quarter? The questions, they never stopped.

Mom was supposed to get in at 4. She got in at 7:30. We didn’t leave for dinner til 8:30. We headed for 2 Amys. The wait was at least an hour.

What to do? Jay and I had purposefully avoided 2 Amys recently knowing that we would try to go there on Friday. Since we usually only go during the week, we forgot about the crowd. I didn’t want Mexican, and Cafe Delux just wasnt exciting enough. Shit.

Then we remembered Enology, the local wine bar just across the street from Cactus Cantina. Darkly lit, it sat unassuming across from the bright neons of CC. Jay and I had eaten there once when it first opened, remembered it was pretty good (although small portions), but we hadn’t been back in a while. Mom was interested, so we gave it a shot.

Immediately after walking in, mom commented that the liked the lighting in Enology much better than 2 Amys, an almost literal night and day comparison. Enology is more sophisticated as well, more appropriate for a mom visit.

We took our time with the menu, starting with a 6-cheese plate and ordering one dish at a time. Although our server was a little slow and somewhat inconsistent, walking by our table when we had empty plates and glasses a couple of times, she remained very cordial and apologized for delays. Being a wine bar, the wine list is very extensive, giving you the opportunity to order vintages you are comfortable with or to branch out to things unfamiliar. I started with a J Brand sparkling wine, followed by a petit manseng from Monticello, and finished with a viognier from California.

I remember the food being good from my previous visit, but it was surprisingly good this time around. After the cheese plate, mom and I each ordered the vineyard salad, with mixed greens, dried cherries, blue cheese, red wine vinaigrette, and herbed lavash, a hard and crunchy flatbread. Jay had the saltimbocco gianni, veal and pork meatballs nestled on top of a chunky tomato sauce. The combination of flavors in the salad was very well balanced, light but satisfying with a pleasant contrast of textures, and the meatballs had a deep, old-country flavor that paired well with the slightly acidic sauce. We also all shared the pesto flatbread, topped with tomatoes roasted to perfection, marshmallow-like pillows of mozzarella, and a mild yet strikingly green and fresh pesto sauce. The flatbread itself was exquisitely soft, not chewy, with just enough form to hold its toppings without getting soggy.

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For our second course, mom and I both chose the seared rockfish. Jay characteristically chose the skirt steak, which was small but cooked and seasoned expertly, accompanied by a huge pile of very flavorful fries.

The rockfish, however, was really the star. Simple, focused, and surprisingly good, each element played well with the rest of the dish. Even though the fist was topped with the now ubiquitous foam, the foam itself imparted a subtle, almost sweet briney-ness remeniscent of the sea. The fish was well seasoned, flaky and moist, and rested on a small pile of baconed green beans, both crispy and crunchy with a nice salty and smoky flavor. All in all, it was an elegantly worked yet simple play of flavors that continued devloping on the tongue after each bite.

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Nothing pleases me more than a varied and imaginative dessert menu that does not feel obligated to only offer generic and mass-appealing mainstays (think creme brule, cheesecake, chocolate cake, flan … you get it). These desserts were all these things, and really effin good. Jay chose the pumpkin ravioli, which in essence was molten pumpkin pie filling held together by a crisp and sweet pastry crust, drizzled with dark chocolate and accompanied with mascarpone cheese. Excellence in fry form.

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Mom and I must have channeled some identical spirit, because again we both ordered the same thing, the banana split terrine. Think your ice cream birthday cake, take it to an Ivy League school, get it a job on K street, and this is what you get: strawberries n’ cream gelato, sliced bananas, walnut-oreo crust, with chocolate covered sour cherries. Each individual part of the dessert maintained its integrity, with distinct flavors popping with each bite, and yet each component mingled well with the rest, reminding you of what a true banana split should taste like. Fun, playful, and a successful reworking of a classic childtime favorite.

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Enology sat dark and forgotten for too long at the top of the hill just up Wisconsin from our apartment. It watched us as we walked by to go eat at other restaurants, it knew we didn’t think of it as an option, it knew we thought it was boring or too populated by loud single girls out on girl nights to be worth our time for a nice meal. Nevertheless, it’s focused, well balanced and well executed food reminded us of what we have been missing, and it successfully found itself in the short list of good neighborhood go-to staples. We’ll be back.


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All posts and images copyright 2008 & 2009 Jenny Robertson, unless otherwise specified. All rights reserved. Any use of images without prior written consent is prohibited.
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