It can take time to grow into good genes
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, February 17, 2013
Pardon the generalization, but even if I didn’t know Joe Harran was behind the food at the successor to Potenza downtown, I’d peg the chef de cuisine as a guy. His salads are big gardens. His main courses could easily feed two. Female chefs can trend generous, too, but their counterparts, young ones in particular, have a tendency to edit themselves less.
Woodward Table, which includes a carryout operation, is the latest dining concept from veteran Washington restaurateur Jeff Buben, whose Southern-themed Vidalia and French-minded Bistro Bis grace the West End and Capitol Hill, respectively. Three months into its journey, the youngest of the bunch is a desired if uneven place to devour glazed lamb ribs scattered with toasted pumpkin seeds and to sample some culinary novelty in spiced duck breast with “blistered” (oven-roasted) grapes.
One of the few light notes at the 200-seat Woodward Table is its orange-and-blond palette. Every perch finds a diversion. A cozy booth or table in the main dining room puts one in view of the long exhibition kitchen; near the broad windows overlooking 15th Street, diners catch a stream of passersby. For private dining, there’s a handsome Beaux-Arts enclosure that, frankly, looks like the hallway it is. Tying the package together are pumpkin-colored pipes that coordinate with the leather banquettes and chair seats. The setting is more comfortable than it is a subject for Architectural Digest.
Despite the hot pull-apart rolls that signal the start of dinner, I’ve made a habit of launching every meal with a flatbread for the table. Prepared in a pizza oven inherited from Potenza, the crusts are thin and pleasantly chewy. The topping I return to most involves shredded duck, diced sweet potato and petals of Brussels sprouts. A paddle of that, plus something potent from the bar, makes me a happy camper. Spring for the smooth, bourbon-based West Wing, a tip of the hat to the establishment’s kinda-sorta neighbors.
You can’t be a restaurant and not serve kale these days, and this kitchen follows fashion with a toss of the dark greens, apple, dates, caramelized onions and bacon. Finer still is the chopped salad that packs in -- open wide, now -- sliced radishes, beets, cauliflower, bibb lettuce, tangy goat cheese and apricot bits, everything moistened with champagne vinaigrette.
Craggy fried chicken livers sit on a puddle of cheesy grits, the richness of the appetizer offset by sweet pepper marmalade. Here and there, reminders of Buben’s other family members pop up. Barbecue shrimp with tasso ham and smoked paprika butter would look right at home at Vidalia, for instance. On the other hand, chicken-fried sweetbreads lack the fine crunch and custardlike center that distinguish the Southern model from the pack. A bed of braised red cabbage adds tang to the rich dish.
No matter the day of the week, corned beef brisket feels like Sunday supper. For those who grew up on unfussy home cooking, the heap of braised sliced meat, tiny skin-on potatoes, baby carrots and a fistful of fresh parsley summons reassuring memories. Two diners could easily share the feast.
Fish is a comparative lightweight on the menu; Harran, 46, should consider that a laurel. Rockfish perched on wilted kale, olives and fennel gets a sweet kiss from citrus poking out from underneath. The kitchen offered the fish as a special one night, augmented with supple lamb-filled ravioli and lentil ragout, both welcome accessories.
The thin golden french fries that ride shotgun with the agreeable hamburger are among the sides you don’t want to miss here. Macaroni and cheese, the ideal marriage of creamy and crisp, yields another crowd favorite. More virtuous, but just as pleasurable, is the current darling of the vegetable world, cauliflower, which gets roasted in the hearth and tossed with cranberries and honeyed nuts.
Gripes? Lunch tastes as if the B team were in charge. I never go in the afternoon that I don’t think evening is the better time to eat at Woodward Table. A stodgy shepherd’s pie made with duck and a dated plate of rare tuna, clumsy preparations both, shape that impression.
Meat eaters are clearly the favored class at Woodward Table. One of the few vegetarian options among the main courses is potato gnocchi sharing their bowl with trumpet mushrooms, squash, Brussels sprouts, hazelnuts and soubise, an onion sauce enriched with bechamel. Sounds interesting, but the dish is a heavy, one-note quilt on the tongue. A few bites in and its recipient is likely to surrender. The diner avoiding meat should hope to find, as I did, a flatbread dressed with broccoli rabe, red onion, fresh basil and a tomato "fondue."
The food is delivered by servers who display varying degrees of polish. Cheers for the one who remembered what I had ordered on a previous visit and pointed out fresh highlights. And a brickbat to her colleague who tried to push more food and drink on us than we wanted, often interrupting my companions at precisely the wrong moment. With a straight face, he informed us that the side dishes were designed to complement the entrees, as if no other restaurant had ever considered the notion. Get the man a coach!
Your server may mention the name behind the desserts. Beverley Bates inspires diners at Vidalia to stay in their seats for another course, and you’d be smart to stick around for some of her handiwork at Woodward Table. Among the magnets are banana cream pie with caramelized fruit and a cloud of whipped cream, and an apple sampler starring an orchard-true sorbet, miniature tarte Tatin, apple mousse with white chocolate and spiced apple cupcake.
While Woodward Table shares some admirable qualities with its siblings, the baby in the family feels as if it’s still finding its own voice.
There’s a family resemblance, with unique qualities
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
The owner of Vidalia in the West End and Bistro Bis on Capitol Hill says opening a third restaurant, the freshly minted Woodward Table downtown, was “like deciding to have another kid”: a “collective effort” on the part of his company. The addition to the family, says Jeff Buben, meant “an opportunity to grow” for his staff.
In other words, “everybody got a promotion!” jokes the veteran Washington chef and restaurateur, who installed Joe Harran, a former chef at his boss’s Southern- and French-themed establishments, as the culinary chief at Woodward Table. The arrival fits three ideas under one roof: a dining room with more than 200 seats, a bar and a carryout operation, Woodward Takeout Food.
“It was like opening two restaurants in one day,” recalls Buben.
Pumpkin-colored pipes draw diners’ eyes to the broad open kitchen as well as the ceiling. The warm color is repeated in both the leather seating and the bar top. A forest of white-washed oak and several images of tables complete the interior.
With my eyes closed at dinner, I could be at Vidalia. Shrimp and grits fuel the feeling, except the seafood here is barbecue-flavored. Woodward Table’s crisp sweetbreads remind me of the restaurant’s sibling as well, although the dish downtown comes not with golden waffles but with salsify puree and red cabbage marmalade.
Are Buben and crew dishing out just the tried and true? Harran’s smoky-sweet glazed lamb ribs sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds signal they are not. So do his terrific flatbreads, born of the gas-burning oven Woodward Table inherited from the previous occupant at 15th and H streets, Potenza. Blue cheese ice cream, better than it sounds, alongside a pear tart with salty caramel sauce is a departure from Buben’s other locations, too.
Early on, dinner goes down better than lunch, where a slick crab cake overwhelmed with mustard, indifferent battered cod and cloying braised greens generate far less interest.
To the left of the restaurant entrance, the gleaming Woodward Takeout Food finds made-to-order sandwiches and salads along with some raised eyebrows. Buben swears he didn’t know what else the shop’s initials stood for until it was too late to change the signs.
One thing’s for sure: WTF is easy to remember.