Restaurant Week 2012: The preparation begins


Nicholas Stefanelli is aiming for your comfort zone during Restaurant Week. (Juana Arias/The Washington Post)

“Tripe was a hit,” says the surprised chef, who will feature comfort food, including meatballs and beef cheeks, during the industry event highlighting a three-course lunch for $20.12 and a three-course dinner for $35.12.

More than 200 restaurants have signed on to serve deals on meals for the 20th Restaurant Week since 2001. Among the first-timers are Newton’s Table in Bethesda, Mala Tang in Arlington and District Commons , Graffiato and the Lounge at Citronelle in Washington.

The dining campaign is “a great way to introduce your restaurant to people who have yet to come,” says Ris Lacoste, chef-owner of Ris in the West End. She intends to offer her regular a la carte menu alongside three special starters, a trio of entrees and two desserts and a lower-priced wine card, even though last year, 82 percent of her crowd ordered the Restaurant Week menu.

Jeff Tunks, a partner in Passion Food Hospitality, says five restaurants in the fold offer all but two of their most expensive entrees as part of the week’s special menu. Does he lose money? “We budget for higher food costs,” he says. Restaurant Week is viewed as smart marketing. The busiest of Tunks’s collection, Acadiana , sees as many as 700 diners a day file through, a challenge to the pastry department that serves sweets to only 40 percent of its clientele on a typical busy night.

The trick, for Lacoste and her competitors, is to figure out food that reflects their style but isn’t “going to kill us food-cost-wise.” Thus the lamb loin or chop Stefanelli features on his standing duo of lamb becomes a roasted leg on the promotional menu, and the 10-ounce rib eye grilled by Tony Chittum at Vermilion in Old Town Alexandria, another participant in the event, is swapped for hanger steak or braised short ribs. Scallops are great because, unlike fish, “they don’t need to be butchered,” says Lacoste.

Chittum is careful to acknowledge different tastes. His roster of Restaurant Week starters and main courses comes stocked with a vegetarian, a seafood and a meat choice. At least one of Vermilion’s two desserts celebrates chocolate.

Exact menus have yet to be written, say most of the chefs. First they have to get through two little occasions called Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

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