2010 Fall Dining Guide
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, October 17, 2010
It calls itself a steakhouse, but I'm just as apt to go fishing as hunting when I visit this designer creation in the W Hotel from celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Lure No. 1 is a plate of seared scallops perched on a glossy bed of snap peas, bacon and (ahhhh) fresh mint, perhaps the best appetizer on the menu. Lure No. 2 is an entree of halibut, typically a boring fish that tastes altogether original when it's perched on a racy base of black beans and chilies and crowned with cool chopped celery. If you've come for something meatier, however, chef Philippe Reininger grills an impressive slab of Wagyu sirloin and even better lamb chops. Served three to a plate and plenty juicy, the chops arrive in a crunchy coat of Japanese bread crumbs with a gorgeous frame of seasonal vegetables. Whatever your path, if you don't squeeze in some not-too-creamed spinach, you're missing one of the best side dishes around (basil gives it a lift). The hardest dessert to say no to is the salted caramel ice cream sundae, with peanuts, popcorn and lashings of chocolate sauce. The music blasting from the nearby lobby is all wrong, and some servers over-share: One night, my waiter spent 10 minutes going over the menu, which defeats the purpose of a printed list. A reservation in the dining room, rich with leather chairs and Palladian windows, typically lets you join the "skip" line that cuts any wait for an elevator ride to the rooftop bar -- and one of the most spectacular views in town.
Not just another steakhouse
New York chef's J&G goes beyond
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009
For the nth time, already: Washington doesn't need another upscale steakhouse. But the city can certainly find room for another restaurant such as the one ensconced in the youthful W Hotel downtown. While J&G Steakhouse plays up meat in its title, the truth is, there's much more than that on its menu, and some of the alternatives rate best of class.
Sampling the restaurant's corn ravioli in late August, I didn't need a calendar to tell me it was the height of summer. The pronounced flavor in the bowl, from corn that tasted as if it had just been cut from the cob and cooked in the field, told me so, as did the tiny orange tomatoes pricked with Thai chilies and scattered on the first course. Adding to its allure was a brilliant green sauce of basil and butter. The sweet of the corn balanced by the tang of the tomatoes, plus all those lovely colors, made for an elegant, edible poem.
An order of lamb chops had a similar effect on me. The meat was swollen with juices, and the Australian lamb, slathered with a bold barbecue sauce, tasted like lamb times 10. To the side of the neat row of chops were buttery mashed potatoes supporting a small nest of gently crisp snap peas.
Halibut can be a wallflower among fish. This kitchen gives the ingredient an ego boost by dressing it with cool diced celery and perching it atop a dark and chunky base of chili peppers, black beans and scallions whose racy accents ignite a little fire in the mouth. The result is a tickled palate and a clean plate sent back to the dishwasher.
The acclaimed New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten lent his initials and recruited a Ritz-Carlton veteran, Philippe Reininger, to this, his 22nd restaurant and his second J&G Steakhouse (the original is in Scottsdale, Ariz.). The Vongerichten empire, which includes the four-star Jean Georges and the more populist Spice Market in Manhattan, spans the globe. The Washington establishment imports a few of its siblings' bestsellers (that halibut has been a draw at Spice Market) but also fits in some of Vongerichten's recent fashions.
If you use J&G as a steakhouse, you can expect the same tabs you would at any other top-grade meat market. The restaurant's fine, dry-aged porterhouse, for instance, will set you back $58 for 24 ounces, and you'll pay extra ($8) for any of the eight sides. The golden disk of shredded potatoes is worth the splurge; the damp and under-seasoned broccoli is Dickensian. Every steakhouse has a gimmick or two. J&G serves its sauces in ivory cups that look exactly like marrow bones. Cute.
There are enough places to find good steak, however, so I'm inclined to direct your attention elsewhere on the menu. Reininger's sheer veal milanese is a textbook example; its glistening salad adds just the right, light touch to the plate. Black sea bass in a veneer of crushed nuts and coriander underscores the chef's deft way with contrasting accents. Sweet and sour, earth and fire duel it out in the underlying broth of mushrooms, lemon juice, soy sauce and more. There are liquid pleasures, as well. The bar whips up some fine cocktails (try the ginger-infused margarita), and the wine list lets us drink well at all price points.
Until recently, most Washington steakhouses have fallen into one of two design camps: testosterone-traditional (think Capital Grille) and ocean-liner sleek (see: Charlie Palmer Steak). Regal with burgundy-colored silk drapes and offering pools of space between tables, J&G adds something different to the lot.
Look up. The 20-foot-high ceilings are treated to stencils paying homage to Washington (cherry blossoms, coins representing the nearby U.S. Treasury Department). Sit down. The plush booths are practically roomy enough to qualify as studio apartments. Be warned: No matter your size, you're likely to sink so low into the cushions, you'll be tempted to ask for phone books to bring you back to eye level with diners in the leather chairs. It doesn't hurt that the restaurant's Palladian windows frame some of the world's most impressive real estate: Calamari tempura tossed with thin slices of red chili and presented with a light and lemony dip somehow tastes better when munched in view of the Washington Monument.
All of my guests have been eager to drink their dessert, high in the sky, on the top floor of the hotel, which plays host to the enclosed Point of View lounge and a separate bar on the terrace (both managed by the hotel). The contributions of the pastry crew help me persuade those restless dining companions to stay grounded for a few more minutes. Among the understated delights have been a poached peach with pistachio ice cream and a persimmon souffle finished with a tart sorbet. Shortly after the Fourth of July, I encountered a miniature cherry pie graced with a subtle almond sorbet that slipped in a few fireworks: Pop Rocks added a pleasant crackle to the crust.
"Three stars?" one of my most critical colleagues quizzed me during my last meal here. Our lunch, including that sublime pasta and an iceberg salad draped in blue cheese that halted conversation ("I can't stop eating it!" she raved), had been impressive. But the occasion wasn't without lesser bites, I reminded her. The most elegant version of short ribs I've come across was undermined by what tasted like candied onions piled on top, and while the cheeseburger we shared was a beefy pleasure, it was also cooked past the medium rare we had requested. Further, at earlier meals, excellence was kept at bay by a few dishes that read better than they tasted. One letdown: Scallops capped with slices of caramelized cauliflower had traces of grit and an army-green sauce that added little but drabness.
Vongerichten's reputation may have obligated us to check out the place. Reininger's renditions, in concert with a postcard-worthy backdrop, will compel us to return.