Harth could find a welcome home
In Tysons, an atypical hotel restaurant
Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011
With few exceptions, hotel restaurants have a reputation for mediocre food. That's why Härth, the dramatic new restaurant in the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner, comes as such a welcome surprise.
"We are trying not to be a hotel restaurant," explains Thomas Elder, Härth's executive chef. "We want to be treated as a real restaurant."
To persuade me, he brags about the honey he collects from hives on the hotel roof to make his popular bacon jam; the roast chicken that comes from certified organic and humane Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, Va.; even the special-request citrusy tonic he has blended for a cocktail mixer.
Really, chef, I'm persuaded. From the stunning decor to the creative regional American menu, I agree that Härth is not your typical hotel restaurant. Now, if the service staff could just step it up a little, your place would be even better.
Opened in April, Härth is an early step in Hilton's overall efforts to, as Elder puts it, "re-energize" its food and beverage operations. The hotel is being renovated, and the spacious lobby bar and the restaurant are among the first areas to be finished.
Härth raises expectations from the minute you glimpse the airy, light-filled space that mixes glass, wood, fire, stone and leather to great appeal.
In the entry, a dark-slate wall holding two wood-fired ovens on one side is nicely balanced by an illuminated glassed-in wine cellar, filled with gleaming bottles, on the other side.
In the dining room, glass-enclosed banks of flames float in tall marble dividers. There are comfy white leather chairs at the four-person wood tables, and curved and quilted white leather booths that can easily fit six friends. Long, celadon leather banquettes are accented with rectangular purple, faux snakeskin pillows that feel good nestled against your lower back.
To underscore its coolness, Härth has put its cocktail and wine list on an iPad, which is not only trendy but also extremely helpful. Touch a listing on the screen, and you can read a description, glance at the latest reviews or get food pairing suggestions.
The only problem: The Sebastiani Zinfandel we picked on our first visit was listed as a 2006 on the iPad, but what was served was the much rougher, less desirable 2007. I would think that updating the available vintages would be a lot easier with an iPad than with a dead-tree list, but someone apparently hadn't paid attention.
What they do pay attention to at Härth is the food. Elder and his chef de cuisine, Philip Thompson, have a soothingly light touch: with the vinaigrettes on the salads, the butter sauce for the vegetables, the fish and seafood dishes that are some of the best entrees on the menu.
Pay attention to the small menu of daily specials that you'll be handed; those items reflect the ingredients most in season and the chefs' sense of invention. One night's special entree was seared day boat scallops with fresh corn and roasted cherry tomatoes: seduction on a plate. Another night's starter of white clam flatbread featured fat, supple clams embedded in a carpet of warm cheese flecked with fresh oregano.
A seafood pot , which turned out to be a summery American version of Italian cioppino, was a subsequent special. Littleneck clams, shrimp, scallops, rockfish, marble-sized potatoes and chunks of corn on the cob rested in a shallow pool of saffron tomato broth that my husband not-so-surreptitiously sopped up with slices of crusty bread.
The regular dinner menu offers a well-edited variety of salads, small plates, wood-fired flatbread pizzas and entrees. It's fittingly flexible for a clientele that might be seeking a full-on date-night dinner, snacks and drinks with co-workers, or dessert and a nightcap.
The menu even passes the kid test. The middle schooler we took on one visit approvingly contemplated the four flatbreads, the burger (with cheese, wood-fired onions and apple-wood-smoked bacon) and the small plate of meatballs, then surprised us all by ordering an iceberg wedge salad with blue cheese dressing and a New York strip steak.
The aforementioned roast chicken entree is a Sunday supper classic, with crisp, golden skin, tender dark meat and a lovely rosemary jus to pour over the (slightly dry) breast meat. The pan-seared Virginia flounder is unimpeachable, with mixed seasonal vegetables and capers in a silky butter sauce. The elegant Maine lobster lasagna comes deconstructed: Wide sheets of spinach and saffron pasta are loosely layered with a generous helping of morels, haricot verts, spinach leaves and big chunks of sweet lobster claw meat, in just enough cream sauce to hold it all together.
Not everything works. The small plate of chipotle barbeque shrimp suffocates in a thick blanket of uninspired sauce; a spice rub would work better. And although the chef says he uses his grandmother's recipe for the meatballs, I think Grandma would tell him they're a tad dense and dry.
Desserts here are just as Americans like 'em: big enough to share, tooth-achingly sweet and over-the-top extravagant. Appealing, too. The most popular choice hits all of those buttons: warm butterscotch pudding in a cute little saucepan served with a little pitcher of salted caramel sauce and chunks of pound cake for dipping and swirling. The first time we tried it, the pudding hadn't set properly. But the second time, it was perfect.
The softball-size chocolate cupcake is cocoa nirvana: a midnight-dark chocolate cake with a runny, marshmallow fluff center, a forest of chocolate shavings on top and a pool of dark chocolate sauce.
With such good food, it's disappointing that the service at Härth isn't up to the same level.
The staff is certainly friendly, but it misses on such basics as keeping water glasses filled, pouring wine, refilling coffee, clearing dishes. The attention level during a breakfast visit was even worse. We finally complained, and on our last dinner visit, things had improved.
Elder says plans are in the works for the restaurant to add outdoor terrace seating, with a fire pit and lounge. Sounds nice, but it might want to concentrate on enhancing the service first.