Cuisine for the Calorie-Conscious
Less can be more at a new Washington restaurant
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Nov. 11, 2007
Illusion is everywhere you look at Rock Creek at Mazza, starting with your arrival at the host stand, which is just steps away from a cinema. Shading the dining room is a massive English oak that takes advantage of the restaurant's 22-foot ceiling. The tree appears so real that you wouldn't be surprised to see a bird fly out of its branches, but in fact, the plant -- 900 pieces of steel, wood paste and silk leaves -- is the handiwork of California craftsmen.
More smoke and mirrors await on your plate. That oval potato chip hovering atop an order of steak tartare has all the crunch of a spud that's been fried; the truth is, the slice was baked to crispness. The creamy sauce applied to an entree of venison? It's yogurt and lime juice masquerading as fat. One option for dessert brings together a trio of elegant "small bites," including cheesecake, that weighs in with a mere 367 calories.
If this were any other restaurant, your Skept-O-Meter would be going off by now. But Rock Creek at Mazza (Gallerie) is an offshoot of Rock Creek in Bethesda, the original purveyor of "mindful" cuisine created by business partners Judith Hammerschmidt and Tom Williams. The entrepreneurs' goal in both places is to offer fresh and flavorful three-course meals for 1,000 calories or fewer, excluding alcohol. To that end, an insert in the menus offers nutritional information for each dish, including fat, fiber, calorie and other counts, and chefs work in consultation with registered dietitians to keep recipes on the straight and narrow. That doesn't prevent the meal-maker -- 30-year-old Ethan McKee at the new restaurant -- from treating guests to a welcome from the kitchen, maybe a demitasse of butternut squash soup with roasted pumpkin seeds, or from offering bread with a meal. Instead of butter, however, the bread comes with a vegetable spread (eggplant pureed with basil and garlic on my most recent visit).
A potential drawback of a good-for-you place to dine is the possibility of having to eat through a lecture. But one of Rock Creek's strengths is the subtle approach it takes to passing along its message. Heart-healthy symbols are nowhere to be found on the menu; portion sizes are similar to what you'd find at other upscale restaurants (except vegetables tend to take up more space on the plate than the main attraction). The kitchen doesn't use butter or cream, a reality that forces McKee to carefully consider the quality of his main ingredients. "I can't cover things up" with fatty enhancers, explains the former chef de cuisine of Equinox downtown. He relies instead on broths for flavor, arrowroot for thickening and such techniques as steaming or smoking -- rather than sauteing or frying -- to try to cook his way into diners' hearts.
With some dishes, he succeeds. The steak tartare tastes as robust, and looks as fetching, as anything you'd find at a Penn Quarter hot spot. Capers, shallots, hot sauce and mustard give the dewy, hand-chopped beef plenty of kick; a fluff of mache (lamb's lettuce) and cooked, halved quail eggs lend visual interest to the presentation. Salads are a logical focal point for Rock Creek, and they include such beauties as alternating slices of eggplant, tomato and mozzarella lined up on a long white plate, the elements united with a splash of balsamic vinegar and fresh basil leaves. The only thing missing from the pleasure was a summer breeze.
Chicken is considered by a lot of people, cooks and customers alike, as a "safe" menu choice. McKee shows how impressive the protein can be when it's brined with lemon, herbs and honey for several hours, roasted and finished under a broiler to crisp the skin. Spinach, sweet corn and thinly sliced fingerling potatoes make a colorful base for the entree, which is served in juicy slices and enhanced with a red wine sauce. The chef's very good pasta, whole-wheat pappardelle, is something a conscientious Italian kitchen would be proud to serve, dressed up as it is with chanterelle mushrooms, sharp nicoise olives and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, the real deal.
Other dishes taste like spa food or worse. In a nod to the mature clientele that frequents Rock Creek, McKee concedes that he doesn't season his food as aggressively as he has in the past, and it sometimes shows. "A feast for the eyes, but not the palate," a dining companion pronounces after tasting an entree that sounds promising on paper: grilled diver scallops, shrimp and mussels in a coconut curry that is so light as to be absent. Deep-red slices of venison are fine as a solo act, but the lean meat is dragged down by a fleshy and disagreeably smoky backdrop of mushrooms, Swiss chard and turnips that makes me imagine I'm eating tobacco. During the same dinner, friends and I eagerly finish the electric chow chow (green tomato relish) on an entree of seared tuna, but put our forks down after a single bite of the beans and corn that frame the fish, which, like those accessories, is mute.
In between the good and the drab are a few dishes that go back and forth. I've had the gnocchi, made with Yukon Gold potatoes, three times. Once it was doughy and flat and tasted mostly of black pepper. Two other times, it has been light and lovely, bright with basil (pesto). The constant is a pleasant garnish of ratatouille.
Rock Creek's pastry chef faces perhaps the biggest hurdle: making desserts conform to the restaurant's mission without reminding customers of that drill. Roger Potter shows he's the equal of his cream- and sugar-packing brethren elsewhere in the city with endings that are quick to disappear after hitting the table. For the sake of variety, you should get an assortment of those two-bite "small bites" -- an idea more restaurants should consider adopting -- and for the sake of pleasure, splurge on all three. I'd be hard-pressed to declare a best-of-class given the choice of Potter's moist carrot cake, dotted with a scooplette of cream cheese ice cream; his goat cheese cake, tangy with lemon; and a little square of chocolate, peanut butter and Rice Krispies that is by turns soft, crisp and decadent.
The restaurant makes the best of its remote location on the third floor of a shopping center. Rock Creek's leafy tree and curved front windows, which draw in light and rooftop vistas by day, let diners pretend they're eating al fresco. And the Club Room, a bar to the side of the main dining area, is an attempt to capture film-goers with such light fare as oysters on the half shell, (two-ounce) burgers and entree salads. The quietest seats: semi-circular, mohair-padded booths that ring the walls. Eating in one of these nooks, cleverly illuminated with votives that resemble shrunken tree stumps, is like sitting in a room of one's own, except you can still see fellow diners. Here, the appearance of comfort and good taste is no illusion.