Miscalculations mar the made-over 2941
More than linens and caviar have been lost
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, March 25, 2012
If you had never eaten at 2941 under chef Bertrand Chemel before the formal Falls Church dining room with the soaring picture windows went under the knife in January, you may be satisfied with what you find at the restaurant that has reopened since then.
In a trend that must have linen suppliers sweating streams, the tables are free of padding. In another sign of changing tastes on the dining front, sophisticated French cooking has yielded to food with a casual Mediterranean bent.
"The days of Petrus and caviar are over," Chemel said when he announced the top-to-bottom makeover in November.
I've been following the story of this numbered restaurant, which opened a decade ago with Jonathan Krinn in the kitchen and his father's terrific breads on the table (remember the gratis loaf that was handed out upon departure?), since it was unveiled in an office building overlooking a man-made lake. 2941 has experienced its share of ups and downs since then, and while the physical setting had faded in recent years, the presence of Chemel, a veteran of the demanding New York kitchens of Daniel Boulud and Laurent Tourondel, kept the attention of food worshippers. (Three years ago, in my fall dining guide, I gave it 31
Those days are a memory.
The first sign that something is radically different looms at the host stand, behind which a long jellyfish sculpture used to dangle.
A dark blue backdrop with psychedelic accents now distracts the eye.
The second cue to a new way of dining is a single sheet of paper instead of several bound pages. The menu categories are too cute by half: Nosh, Next, Noodles, Need and Naughty represent snacks, starters, spaghetti (er, pasta), savory entrees and sweets. (Okay, I fell for the alliteration there.)
Then there's the food. Like a lot of restaurants, this one helps you pad your bill by offering snacks ahead of appetizers. Spring for Chemel's takes on fried calamari and macaroni and cheese. Yes, you've probably dispatched an ocean of fried calamari in your life, but this chef's treatment (a barely-there batter, squid that's firm but yielding, a silky romesco for dipping) demonstrates a luscious way to prepare them. As for that macaroni and cheese, Chemel rolls the cooked pasta into dainty croquettes, crisp on the outside and soft in the center, and dusts them with minced black truffles in season. A subversive touch, perhaps? They're fun. Enjoy them with one of 2941's excellent cocktails, perhaps a racy riff on gin and tonic that shows up hot with jalapeño and sporting a cap of foamy egg white.
There are a handful of dishes that hint of the heady old days at 2941. Two involve pasta. (Part of the facelift involved adding a pasta station to the kitchen.)
Cheese raviolini doesn't sound like a last meal request, but the way Chemel makes it - with cured, clove-scented duck leg - the dish could be. Splashed with butter, the stamp-size pasta practically melts on the tongue; the duck leg turns out to be thin ribbons of pink meat, draped on top like designer bacon strips. The three-star combination makes a diner reluctant to share. The other pasta I crave is a bolt of buckwheat spaghetti scattered with crisp snips of pancetta and smoky pioppini mushrooms.
Just as the cost of a cookbook is worth it if I can find a handful of recipes I want to make again, the discovery of several successes on a menu strengthens the case for a restaurant. My objects of affection extend to crisped sea bream on a puddle of cucumber-yogurt sauce and rosy lamb loin paired with spicy lamb sausage.
Yet, the experience at the refurbished 2941 is akin to eating filet mignon on a paper plate. It's not that the food lacks substance, it's that you remember having enjoyed it on china in the first place. Sometimes, I come upon misses that show an inattentive kitchen: A cake of tuna tartare walled between crackers is so salty it might as well be bottarga. Grilled yellowfin tuna with ginger sauce? It's nice enough, and the fish is sushi-grade, but the entree wouldn't coax me from Washington if my job didn't require me to eat everywhere.
Inconsistency makes me less enthusiastic about the place, too. The elegant and juicy chicken breast with grilled scallions and chorizo coins that I enjoyed one night was ordinary chicken with a sludge of dark brown sauce and chunks of sausage on another visit.
It's (mostly) fun to be Naughty at 2941, where pastry chef Caitlin Dysart creates a winning "Dark & Stormy" from a ring of spicy rum cake, ginger semifreddo with the chewy texture of Indian kulfi and bracing lime sherbet. The Springfield native's tender eclair filled with rosemary cream is straight out of a Parisian bakery, and dressed up with juicy roasted pineapple and candied cashews. I'll take a pass on the pistachio "milkshake," however, which tastes as if we're only getting part of a dessert.
The service staff is still trying to figure out whether to walk a casual or a fancy line. Plates are presented to diners simultaneously, as at the top restaurants. But wine refills might leave splashes of juice behind, and the food might be deposited with such force that parts of a dish bounce onto the table. Those are minor slips, but they add up, reminding this diner that Chemel hasn't lost his touch but, rather, the trappings that established 2941 as a destination restaurant.
Regular readers might expect this to be the part of the review where I ding the establishment for sound levels that are equal to the noise made by lawn mowers or jet engines. But no! You'll be able to hear yourselves talk at 2941. Whoever picked the soundtrack ought to sit in the corner facing the wall for an hour, however. The gawdawful music summons bad '80s porn. "Some Enchanted Evening" performed on a tuba would be an improvement.
Chemel explained the changes at 2941 as "an evolution, not a revolution." What his place of employment has morphed into, however, is nothing less than an about-face.
Ask Tom will return.