Hook, Line and Sinker
Fish lovers will bite at this Georgetown lure
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, June 17, 2007
Barton Seaver is not the only chef in town eager to serve his customers ingredients that aren't in danger of disappearing from the deep, blue sea. But no one is doing a better job of convincing the masses of the joys of bluefish, weakfish and other sustainable specimens than the 28-year-old visionary at Hook.
Surely you've heard of the glam new watering hole and restaurant in Georgetown. Launched with the assistance of Jonathan Umbel, formerly of the nearby Blue Gin lounge, Hook has been swimming with the young and the pretty since it opened this spring. It doesn't matter whether the crowds are showing up for the animated scenery or for the message that Seaver, best known for his work at Cafe Saint-Ex in Logan Circle, wants to slip onto every plate. The point is, they're getting a good education: There's more to life than monkfish, cod and farmed salmon -- American (menu) idols whose background checks reveal they're being overfished, caught using methods that harm their habitat, or raised with antibiotics.
You'll be encouraged by your server to ease in with crudo, the Italian equivalent of Japanese sashimi. A typical visit finds a choice of six or so of these snacks, each bite neatly displayed on its own little white plate. An orange fold of salmon might be enhanced with a mere suggestion of crisp Fuji apple and fresh thyme. Thanks to a grind of black pepper and a dab of moscato gelee, the flavor of a briny oyster on the half shell zigzags from heat to sweet, pushing the bivalve in a fresh direction. A dab of pureed mint overwhelms a rectangle of raw tuna, and a single shrimp is mismatched with a swipe of chocolate-chili oil (it tastes like Hershey's). But the satisfactions outnumber the slips, and, more often than not, Seaver achieves his stated goal of "selling you the flavor of the fish" with just the right touch of say, grapefruit and sea salt or lemon and parsley.
If you liked the young chef's food at Cafe Saint-Ex, chances are good you'll appreciate his cooking at Hook. The difference between the two menus is the dominance of surf in his new home, which is modeled on Esca, the trail-blazing Italian seafood restaurant in New York. (Steak, from local and grass-fed beef, was the only non-fish entree I encountered on a trio of explorations.) Otherwise, the chef is still inclined to add an interesting twist or two to whatever he's serving, and to do so without going overboard.
Linguine and clams taste altogether new when, instead of butter or olive oil, they're sauced with hot milk that has been whipped to a lovely cappuccino-like froth. Infused with coriander seed and bay leaf, the savory cloud dissolves into the hot pasta and intensifies the starch in an unexpectedly pleasant way. And Hook's response to the ubiquitous charcuterie plate (I wonder if McDonald's has plans to put one on its menu anytime soon) is a country-ham-tasting -- Virginia ham vs. Tennessee-born prosciutto, when I tried it -- that throws in tender, quarter-size biscuits, along with gherkins and coarse mustard. Seaver's staging also shows thought. When he makes a Caesar salad, pretty ruffles of bibb lettuce are set upright and lined up so they almost fall into each other, and the application of a creamy, slightly aggressive dressing is judicious. A warm crouton, garnished with a silvery marinated anchovy, rounds out the plate.
You don't need to do any homework before you show up; the servers are happy to detail the specifics of Hook's daily catch. Never had weakfish? Its flavor is similar to that of wild striped bass, they inform you. Wondering about wahoo? The steak-like texture resembles that of swordfish, while the taste has the butteriness of tuna, they report. The guy delivering food from the open kitchen to your table and serving as tour guide may well be the wiry Seaver himself. (His right-hand man in the kitchen is Joshua Whigham, who previously worked at Cafe Saint-Ex's sister restaurant, Bar Pilar, also in Logan Circle.) Seaver says he gets a kick out of interacting with diners and "opening people's eyes" to the fish that are good for the environment. One patron told the chef he thought of bluefish as fertilizer, not food. All it took was a taste of the fresh fish as served at Hook to broaden the skeptic's horizon, according to Seaver, who sold the guy on bluefish teamed up with a cake of potatoes and parsnips and a stripe of pesto.
The kitchen doesn't hide behind unnecessary stocks to make a good impression. "The ingredients are so good on their own, I see no reason to mask" their flavors, says the chef, who limits his use of cream and butter and "brines almost everything" in a salt and sugar solution that helps keep every dish moist. Halibut is among my least favorite fish, but here I ate every flake of the entree, which is typically slow-roasted and offered with a smoked-onion sauce. Striped from the grill, Hook's excellent shrimp are displayed on a skinny raft of spring garlic, a main dish that also includes grits with the texture of cream of wheat and wonderful deep flavor. (The secret: smoked-infused water, a by-product of smoking salmon.) Sable goes down like satin, and my encounter with the pearly white and utterly succulent protein was better for its accessories: a sweet-tart lick of cranberry sauce and onion-laced lentils, both lighter than they sound. Because Hook's menu is based on whatever fish it reels in each day, the centerpiece is subject to change, but certain platemates have been consistent, such as the currant-sweetened spinach and tiny sunchoke chips.
Not every dish is a catch. Lobster risotto looks as though it was rendered by Van Gogh but falls flat on the tongue. The vivid yellow grains need more saffron and more salt. A few other changes would elevate the experience. Hook's bread basket is ordinary eating, and aside from some very good salads, there's little for anyone who avoids flesh. In addition to writing the menu, Seaver created the wine list, and it's a fantastic collection that gathers together variety in selection and price; the riches stretch to muscadet, orvieto, macabeo and auxerrois available by the glass. But the program begs for a sommelier; in the restaurant's early days, the servers were far less comfortable describing the sips than the nibbles, though to their credit, they weren't afraid of asking their superiors for more detail.
The dining room allows the food to be the focus at Hook, whose subtlety begins at the door with a signless facade and continues inside with shades of soothing cream and taupe. Splashes of color come by way of underwater photographs, while gentle lighting and a curved ceiling further soften the overall look of the long restaurant. The prop of every other new restaurant -- a communal table -- sits across from the light-filled front bar. Good luck finding a free seat.
Desserts adhere to Seaver's style. They're simple but elegant. If you've eaten at Washington's Circle Bistro or Notti Bianche, you might even recognize a few of them. Pastry chef Heather Chittum worked at both restaurants before coming aboard Hook, where she now serves some of her past hits, including warm, sugar-dusted doughnut holes with a pot of hot chocolate, and fresh-from-the-oven madeleines. Chittum treats fruit the way her superior handles fish: with real appreciation. Pineapple is shaved into sheer slices and dressed up with sugared nuts and a scoop of basil-infused ice cream that feels both indulgent and refreshing, while strawberries might be showcased in multiple clever ways (most recently, in a shooter with ginger). A "deconstructed" carrot cake is more savory than sweet (but pockets of salt kept my fork still one night) and is apt to be upstaged by its garnish, perhaps a delicate creme fraiche sorbet playing the role of cream cheese frosting.
Hook slips a brochure about sustainability in your check holder. Read it, and you might be surprised to find out how little you know about the fish you like most. I prefer the lesson on my plate. Taste it, and you wonder when Seaver and friends might be joined by others in the pool.