By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, May 18, 2013
Then: An understated menu with pleasant surprises(2008)
Again: Getting a clothes-minded neighbor
The chef-owner of Corduroy never shouts to be heard. Rather, Tom Power merely buys good ingredients, prepares them to best advantage, and arranges them in such a way that first your eyes and then your tongue are entertained. So your scallop appetizer might be from Maine, offered in its fancy shell along with its roe and seasoned with just a sprinkle of sea salt and olive oil: brilliant restraint.
I almost always order soup here, and I'm almost always delighted by what I find in the bowl, most recently chilled burdock soup broadened with dashi, kelp and bonito flakes for a smoky, mushroom-like effect. The lovely green-and-white shiso salad glossed with grapeseed oil and rice wine vinegar is a trick Power gleaned after seeing his wife's family's shiso farm in Japan.
You can pretty much go anywhere on the list and find yourself in good company; Corduroy's pastas are equal to his Italian counterparts', and if you want a change from beef, lean antelope with haricots verts and a wash of juniper and red wine should be your destination. An on-the-spot request for a meatless main course is followed by (grrr) a plate with a bunch of side dishes on it, but the seven (count 'em!) elements also include some Indian-inspired choices. The mood of the staff is cool some nights, and there's a tendency to up-sell on occasion. "Champagne would go well with your appetizers," a server coos -- an entreaty we ignore. Other kitchens do better cheese plates; few competitors bake an apple tart as well as Corduroy, where a wisp of pastry, plump fruit and velvety ice cream can lead to another order.
The sleek, two-story townhouse across from the city's convention center is, like the cooking here, subtle but not without splashes of color. If there are two of you and you want some privacy, ask for Table 24, a trim booth facing the open kitchen. Coming up next, next door: Baby Wale, another fabric-inspired place to eat, this one more casual and serving pizza and "fun things," Power promises.
The More Things Change . . .
At Corduroy, the same great menu beckons from a new location
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Aug. 3, 2008
Sound Check: 68 decibels (conversation is easy)
At Corduroy at the Four Points by Sheraton downtown, Tom Power was responsible for breakfast, lunch, dinner, room service and banquets. "It was complicated," the 40-year-old chef remembers. A sudden rainstorm, for instance, might keep hotel guests inside their rooms and swamp the kitchen with "200 orders for hamburgers" at the same time Power and staff were trying to put out lunch or dinner in the restaurant.
Power doesn't have to worry about lunch or room service or wet weather anymore. He left the Four Points by Sheraton in January, taking with him the Corduroy name, to open a shop of his own across from the convention center in May. Now the veteran Washington chef is calling his own shots.
Some of the differences between the two Corduroys are significant. The original, in a drab room on the second floor, resembled an airport lounge; the new restaurant, set in a renovated townhouse, is all clean lines, soft lighting, blond wood and comfy leather chairs, a place you could imagine taking a date or celebrating a raise (remember those?).
But there's plenty here that people will recognize immediately. Power took with him to Ninth Street five of his original servers and all eight kitchen workers, including three dishwashers. And the menu, a concise roster of dishes that emphasize ingredients over ego, is something that will look familiar to Corduroy regulars. Maybe too familiar: Early visitors to the new location griped that the chef could have used his time off to come up with a few new tricks.
In small ways, he has. Freed from the demands of a hotel, Power now has the time to prepare a fig sauce a la minute for a plate of duck, and to steam to order a bowl of crab soup, which he thickens with egg. Most diners won't notice those flourishes; they probably will be too busy admiring the chef's treatment of some prime ingredients. Like a handful of competitors in Washington, Power knows how to infuse simple-sounding dishes with a dash of excitement. Thus "chilled pea soup" shows up with a dab of pepper-spiked whipped cream floating on its grass-green surface, and a jolt of smoke finds its way into every spoonful (the secret: pureed bacon and ham hock). You might think you know what's coming when you order "beets, baby carrots and goat cheese." The pretty garden that arrives arranges the earthy marinated beets and tender, delicate carrots just so atop a tangy veneer of goat cheese that blends into the white plate. Not until you touch the tine of your fork to the cheese do you realize the ingredient is there. Sly.
Carpaccio (of any sort) now rivals tartare (typically tuna) as The Most Ubiquitous Appetizer Out There. Maybe that's why I almost skipped ordering the lobster carpaccio at Corduroy. It's a good thing I didn't (and shame on me for underestimating Power). Arranged on a slender white plate, the thin coins of seafood are raw, as expected, and dressed up with pinches of chervil and red beads of roe. The surprise flourish is a drizzle of warm emulsified butter, which heightens the sweetness of the lobster and gives the appetizer a welcome lushness.
In my experience, the only appetizer that belly-flopped teamed fat sardines with an olive puree. The dish's swagger was undermined by mushy fish.
Power is a careful buyer. His bread is from Breadline, his beef is from Iowa, and his salmon might be wild, with flesh the color of ivory. Eating that (king) fish is a revelation for anyone who considers salmon boring. Plus, its warm cake of diced potatoes, skeined with herbs and creamy with mayonnaise, is picnic food raised to glory. I like the veal tenderloin, too, a roseate piece of meat offered simply with buttery whipped potatoes and velvety maitake mushrooms. Power's prime beef strip loin has heft and character, and the aforementioned duck shows off a Muscovy two ways: as roasted and sliced breast meat and as confit. Cinnamon gives the breast a touch of sweetness; thyme, garlic and brandy lend savor to the duck leg; and the bok choy to the side adds lightness to the entree.
All these enticing meals get a boost from the staff, which is smart and efficient, and the wine cellar, which is stocked with high-quality, food-friendly choices. The American labels lean to blue chips, and here's the place to splurge on French burgundy, both red and white. (Stop the presses: Everything is poured at the correct temperature.)
Vegetarians won't be happy with Power's idea of a meatless meal. His "melange of seasonal vegetables" turns out to be a collection of side dishes rather than a single composition. Granted, the English peas are bright and crisp, the fried potatoes are stacked like Lincoln logs, the baby carrots glisten with butter, and the creamed spinach is something you'd expect of a great steakhouse. As tasty as they all are, though, they look like a heap of accompaniments, an afterthought from an otherwise considerate chef.
One of the few reasons to praise the ambiance of the original Corduroy (now the District Grill) was its volume. I routinely directed readers seeking a quiet restaurant to book there. The new restaurant is similarly civilized, in part because Power decided not to play music in the main dining room. Not only is that good for conversation, but the relative hush focuses attention on the plate.
Not that the interior is without its charms. It's fun to see the silver-maned Power front and center in his open kitchen, and it's good to know about the semiprivate booths for two (Table Nos. 21, 24 and 41) to the sides. When one of my party asks for the restroom, a waiter insists on escorting him from his seat in the main dining room to the second floor. "It gives me the excuse to show off the upstairs," he says, which is home to an 11-stool bar and two intimate party rooms. (A historic property, Corduroy is not wheelchair-accessible.)
Remain seated for dessert. Power makes his own sweets, and like much of what precedes them on the menu, they are deceptively simple and include a twist. I'm particularly enamored of the fruit desserts, including an elegant strawberry tart served with strawberry sorbet hiding vanilla ice cream.
Leave it to Power to improve on a simple Creamsicle.