Same Chef, Different Outcome
A renowned Washington restaurateur struggles in Virginia
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Robert Wiedmaier served Washington a taste of haute French cuisine with Marcel's beginning in 1999 and followed that with mussels and Belgian beer at Brasserie Beck two years ago.
For his latest and perhaps most ambitious course, the veteran chef has teamed with a hotel in Alexandria to deliver not just one place to eat, but three: an upscale dining room within the new Lorien Hotel & Spa, a casual Tasting Room next door and the Butcher's Block, a charcuterie and carryout on the same block.
Count me an admirer of the Washington restaurants, Marcel's and Brasserie Beck, named for the chef's two sons. The senior venue, in the West End, is one of the city's most civilized places to indulge in boudin blanc and burgundy, while the younger and more relaxed establishment helped change the idea of what it means to be a K Street restaurant.
As for the Virginia additions to Wiedmaier's empire, I appreciate the creators' reach more than their grasp. It would be terrific for Alexandria to gain an engaging restaurant and a cool spot for a drink and a snack. With the exception of that takeout, however, what's playing in the two sit-down places is far less original and definitely less compelling than what we've come to expect from a chef of Wiedmaier's stature. Moments of quiet pleasure at the table are tempered by moments of glancing at one's watch.
The forgettable setting doesn't help; the restaurant within the hotel does as good a job as Ambien of inducing sleep. Aside from a front bar with a snazzy copper cover, the rest of the expanse is unlovely. Diners walk across blue carpet that could pass for dyed AstroTurf to reach seats that don't appear to be related. Some are captain's chairs in baby blue; others, more formal, are covered in bronze-colored fabric. Low ceilings and lantern lights offer a suggestion of intimacy, but they can't detract from the rooms' quirky blandness.
The choices on the menu draw from Wiedmaier's ideas at Marcel's and Beck. Some of the food is fancy (mushroom-foie gras ravioli); some of it is familiar (beef filet and fries). The cooking can be mystifying. Why, as May segued into June, would a restaurant dress its plates in winter garb? I saw a lot of beige plates during my dinners at Brabo. And why, given the name over the entrance, would a chef not bother to make his own french fries? The ones here, as at the otherwise pleasing Beck, are frozen.
If there is one word of advice I'd give to prospective diners here, it is this: fish. Whether it's salmon presented as a chive-sprinkled carpaccio with wasabi-stoked creme fraiche, or a gently crisp skate wing arranged with sweet beets and lemon butter, fish is a strategy with some satisfying rewards. Yes, you've probably encountered peppery seared ahi tuna with fennel slaw before, and there are better versions than this one playing all over the country. But the kitchen, headed by Chris Watson, a former sous-chef at Marcel's, also delivers a fine seared turbot framed with tender gnocchi and buttery artichokes.
If I didn't order something from the water at Brabo, I'd head for the chicken. Watson sears the skin of a free-range breast and herbed thigh to make them crisp before finishing the pieces in the oven. The entree's accompaniment, a crisp cake of shredded potato and Gruyere cheese, tastes as if it has been freshly dropped off by Marcel's. The plate mate also threatens to steal some of the spotlight from the main attraction. It's that appealing.
In a clever first course, Caesar salad is rethought as a low hedge bound with creamy dressing and fenced in with a ribbon of parma ham. Central Michel Richard downtown does something similar, albeit better; Brabo's version comes with a Parmesan tuile that bends when it ought to snap. The cracker tastes less than fresh.
Indeed, it's the details that sink some of the dishes here. Butter Poached Gulf Shrimp reads scrumptious but tastes past its prime. A special of cassoulet arrives with a bland crumb topping and sausages that follow suit (they are mute). Roasted duck can show up moist or dry, and its upended rolls of pastry-bound wild rice smack of austerity.
Still, the biggest problem with this menu is how safe, how predictable -- and how unexciting -- it is.
When you're having a good time in a restaurant, when you feel well cared for, food slips matter less. "You'll love everything!" a waiter promised a month or so after Brabo's debut in February. We didn't, but plenty of the food was agreeable, and the staff thoughtfully provided one of my young dining companions with a Barrel of Monkeys game to keep him amused while his parents and I caught up with one another. Another server was so enthusiastic and charming about her non-restaurant life (she was studying massage) that by meal's end, I contemplated turning in my keyboard for a padded table. A third waiter reminded me how much I dislike up-selling. "A glass of champagne?" he asked my friends and me, for no apparent reason.
One door over from the hotel, the Tasting Room looks hard to resist. Poke your head inside what is actually two small rooms, and you'll see all sorts of reasons to aim for a seat: flatbreads exiting a wood-fired oven, a little zinc bar that would look at home in a tony part of Amsterdam or Berlin, a chalkboard that sums up the small retreat's MO. ("Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried, with fewer tensions and more tolerance.") The kitchen mixes a satisfying salad and fixes a good sandwich. After sampling baby bibb lettuce and beets splashed with an assertive mustard vinaigrette and a roast chicken sandwich moistened with goat cheese mayonnaise, I can imagine a diner putting the place on a future to-do list.
The signature flatbreads, on the other hand, are disappointing. They're thin and crisp, as they should be, but also gummy in parts. The toppings run from satisfying (winy prosciutto with fresh basil) to sorry (clumps of bitter radicchio and a smattering of arid duck confit). The Tasting Room doles out its steamed mussels by what looks like the bushelful; they're fat but not very flavorful, and the sauce I tried, tomato with Parmesan, didn't taste much of either ingredient. French onion soup is plenty cheesy but lacks depth in its broth.
Wiedmaier has just two children. When he christened Brabo, he drew from his Belgian roots. (That should be your cue to request the model Belgian waffle, come dessert.) The name of his new place refers to a mythical Roman soldier, Silvius Brabo, who chopped off the hand of a giant who had been demanding money from those hoping to traverse the Scheldt River. The tale was immortalized by a statue in front of the city hall in Antwerp, Belgium.
"French with Flemish flair," a voice on Brabo's telephone recording declares. If that's what you're after, I can think of two better places to eat across the Potomac. And both of them belong to Robert Wiedmaier.
Tom Sietsema wrote about Brabo for his First Bite column in March 2009.
The names for Robert Wiedmaier's dining destinations previously came easily to him. The Washington chef simply christened Marcel's, his formal French restaurant in the West End, and Brasserie Beck, his nod to Belgian grub downtown, after his sons.
For his new venture, in the Lorien Hotel & Spa in Old Town Alexandria, the 48-year-old father of two had to think outside his tribe. Enter Brabo by Robert Wiedmaier, whose blue-and-brown dining room turns out to be a nod to a mythical Roman soldier, Silvius Brabo. He cut off the hand of a giant who demanded money from those hoping to traverse the Scheldt River, a story immortalized by a statue in front of the city hall in Antwerp, Belgium.
Brabo, Wiedmaier says, is "another connection to my Belgian roots" and "a name everyone can pronounce." (It's BRAH-bo.)
Heading the kitchen is chef de cuisine Chris Watson, 35, who helped open Beck's almost two years ago and more recently served as sous-chef at Marcel's. Brabo's menu runs from duck sausage to mussels gratin and from skate wing with beets to braised pork shank ignited with chili sauce.
An appetizer called Duo of Shenandoah Smoked Trout is a delicious understatement. The fish is presented on a plate divided into quadrants. Two of the quadrants are occupied by smoked trout: one a mousse and one a fillet, each perched on a tender blini; the other sections display a crisp apple slaw and chive-flecked shaved fennel. Pretty to look at, the starter is also easy to eat.
Brabo keeps company on its block with two other venues created by Wiedmaier. One is the casual, 35-seat, no-reservations Brabo Tasting Room. Its wood-burning oven turns out pizzas and savory tarts. The second business, expected to open around the end of the month, is called the Butcher Block. There, the chef will sell meats and prepared dishes for carryout and will host the occasional cooking demonstration.
Wiedmaier says a lot has changed since he began his cooking career in Old Town in the mid-1980s, at the late Le Chardon d'Or. And he's not talking just about food fashions or neighborhoods. Back then, the former commuter from Maryland recalls with a laugh, "I used to sleep in my car during breaks!"
(March 4, 2009)