1789 marks 50 years of civilized dining
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, June 24, 2012
Food scribes are sometimes accused of chasing what's new at the expense of saluting tradition, which is one reason I made a mad dash to 1789 for the Georgetown stalwart's 50th anniversary this year. In a world of pop-up dining rooms and assertions by some trendsetters that "interesting" food is a worthier aim than "delicious" cooking — I'm talking about you, Spanish chef Andoni Luis Aduriz — 1789 represents a slower time and place.
There are no foams on the plates at 1789. The kitchen doesn’t stock a Food Network performer. The tables are set with starched linens and a slender candle that’s lighted once you’re settled into your banquette. Depending upon which of the three floors and the six dining rooms you land in, the ambiance in the Federal-style, antique-filled destination can place you in a tony pub, a hunt country inn or a garden that happens to be indoors. Gentlemen are no longer required to wear jackets to dinner (although management appreciates it when they do).
Some impressive talent has passed through the kitchen of this crown jewel in the Clyde’s Restaurant Group, including veteran Ris LaCoste, who went on to open the eponymous Ris in the West End, and Daniel Giusti, who left 1789 last year to work in the world-class Noma in Copenhagen. Giusti recommended as his replacement Anthony Lombardo, a former sous-chef at the recently shuttered Casa Nonna in Dupont Circle. Lombardo is not bigger than the institution or his predecessors, but his best efforts prove something: 1789 isn’t just for history buffs.
Allow me to introduce you to the chef's black and white tagliatelle. A tasteful bridge between the chef's Italian heritage and contemporary cooking, it may be the most joyful dish on the list. Tossed with bright green peas, smoky with bacon and decorated with single-bite crab fritters, the two-toned pasta can be ordered as a first course or a main course. Get the bigger size, because the chances of keeping the dish to yourself are small.
Asparagus soup tastes true to the vegetable. However, the puree comes with a tiny tea sandwich layered with zucchini blossom and goat cheese whipped with lardo that resonates with less tang than its presence suggests. The bread is also dry. Enjoy the soup, instead, with something from the basket on the table; the tender, house-baked bun flavored with dill and goat cheese is the one I keep reaching for every visit.
Earlier this month, Lombardo introduced a five-course, $50 dinner. The promotion is a build-it-yourself meal that more or less lets diners compose their own tasting menu. While the selections change nightly, you should hope to see piggy-rich pork loin gathered with tangy collards and a thin bundle of grilled asparagus, a main course sauced with Calvados and meat juices. Scallops are as sweet and silken as you want them to be, joined on their plate by crisp pork belly, parsnip puree and buttery kale. The portions suggest you’re in a steakhouse.
The lightest of the main dishes is the crisp-skinned Arctic char, pink as salmon and faintly sweet. The fish rests on shaved baby fennel and citrus slices, the latter a throwback to Lombardo’s childhood in Detroit, where his mother served orange slices with cracked pepper and olive oil as an after-school snack. The chef updates mom’s fruit salad with Meyer lemon vinaigrette.
Lamb has long been a signature at 1789, often in the form of a rack. An advocate of whole animal butchery like many of his peers, the keeper of the flame serves different parts of the beast throughout the week (rack lovers should book on the weekend). When there’s roseate leg of lamb in the style of a roulade, with crisp polenta cakes and sweet pea veloute, there’s no longing for rack of lamb.
Like a lot of young chefs, Lombardo, 30, has a tendency to overdress his food. Fresh soft shell crabs don’t need much enhancement, but these are tarted up with a base of house-made ricotta and a thick application of aioli made green with garlic scapes. The sauces detract from the pure flavor of the crab. Another recent appetizer, duck confit offered as a a savory strudel, had me wishing there was a little more sweet-tart rhubarb compote in the arrangement and a lot less foie gras cream (a lake, in my case).
The best of the endings is classic: profiteroles. They come three light pastry puffs to a plate, and are stuffed with vanilla ice cream, strewn with hazelnuts and draped with hot chocolate sauce at the table. No other dessert makes quite the same impact, although the ball of chocolate mousse on a swipe of caramel sauce and further indulged with black pepper-milk chocolate ice cream hits plenty of sweet spots, too.
Take away customers’ iPhones and the menu’s “sustainable seafood,” and a patron could imagine himself dining in the company of (pick your era) Pat Moynihan or Jeane Kirkpatrick. Even as the restaurant feeds us some of today’s fashions, 1789 demonstrates a timeless quality, so rare in 2012, that deserves a clink of the glass.