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 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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October 2009
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