A hotel eatery gets renamed (sort of) and reimagined (kind of)
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Sound Check: 76 decibels; must speak with raised voice
Some waiters are so intrusive that they become Topic A at the table. Others are so invisible, you imagine Casper the Friendly Ghost is the attendant for your meal. And then there are servers like the one I had at Dish + Drinks a few times, capable of juggling multiple tasks with ease and injecting levity into visits.
"I have it on good authority that neither the lamb nor the chicken had a name," he informed a friend and me after we spent a few minutes with the restaurant's short menu. "Not to get too personal," he added after one of us ordered the poultry, "but do you eat your chicken with your fingers or a knife?" On a subsequent visit, the same gentleman served as a walking chamber of commerce for the restaurant, formerly known as just Dish and now in the (mostly) capable hands of chef Peggy Thompson. The pork chop, he claimed, would be "the best you ever had," while the softshell crabs were described in the rat-a-tat style of a radio commentator. "Just in. Tempura. Served with spicy slaw."
Looking for dinner before a performance at the Kennedy Center? An easy place to catch up with a friend? Dish + Drinks in the River Inn is happy to oblige. Renovated last year, the cozy gold-and-green dining room appears to have retained little of what was, save for the sepia-toned canine photographs by William Wegman on the walls and an on-going problem with noise. A communal table now graces the scene, raising its takers a foot or so higher off the ground than customers at surrounding seats. Striped bamboo floors add a chic touch, but I could do without the TV above the bar. (Note to restaurateurs: Some of us don't mind a little silence with our meals. Some of us would prefer not to share dinner with a cast of talking heads.)
Dish was a restaurant that took fun seriously. Previous chefs had us smiling at the sight of buttermilk fried chicken presented with a rolled-up paper napkin (of course diners wanted to eat the bird with their fingers!) and a sweet tribute to boardwalk snacks that brought together funnel cake, caramel corn and house-churned mint ice cream in a waffle cone.
Thompson, a graduate of the L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg and most recently affiliated with the Georgetown Club, follows in some of her predecessors' footsteps. In winter, her menu included super-crisp taquitos filled with spicy shredded pork, and golden conch fritters arranged on lentils in a martini glass -- ideas that reminded me how far hotel menus have come, and notions that deserve longer play here. More recently, I've encountered a fine little crab cake sporting a crown of light fried onion, and a twist on bruschetta that finds heirloom tomatoes, basil pesto and goat cheese crumbles in a bowl decorated with shards of grilled baguette. That highly touted pork chop is very likely not the best you ever had -- mine was hard to cut -- but the softshell crab yields a little marvel of crunch and sweetness, and its slaw proves equal to its billing. Roast chicken comes with a glossy skin and flattering escorts (a soothing sweet potato gratin and broccoli rabe with some bite when I ordered the entree). Herby lamb chops with a brassy tomato jam can be ordered as a first course or a main dish, a nice nod to mixed appetites.
I'm not a fan of hyper-detailed food descriptions. Brief is generally fine by me. But I was surprised to order shrimp cocktail one lunch and get a version that was fried. The shrimp itself was good, but its side nest of greens and shredded carrots was drenched in a vinaigrette that tasted mostly of soy sauce.
The current dessert menu suffers in comparison with earlier scripts, in part because Heather Chittum, one of the city's better known pastry talents, once helped keep Dish interesting with amusements that included that boardwalk fantasy. (She has since moved to Hook in Georgetown.) The options nowadays run to the unimaginative. In 2008, it's hard to believe a restaurant with any aspirations would serve nothing more adventurous than bread pudding and brownie sundaes.
The concise wine list suits the price points and the flavors of the menu; the bottle average is around $40, and every wine served by the bottle is available by the glass. Unless you're Steve Case, however, you might wish to inquire about the cost of a cocktail before ordering it. I was shocked to be charged $13 for a margarita that was no better than pleasant. At that price, the drink should be served in Baccarat, and the recipient should have island sand beneath his feet. But a deal of a pre-theater meal awaits those who dine on the early side: Monday through Saturday, from 5 to 7 p.m., Dish + Drinks presents three courses for $35. There's something to applaud.