Tom Sietsema wrote about Senart's Oyster & Chop House for a Wednesday, June 21 First Bite column.
What customers see at the new Senart's Oyster & Chop House on Capitol Hill is not at all what owner Xavier Cervera inherited when he took over the historic space, previously used as a veterinary clinic, last year: a ceiling that was less than nine feet high and a building that ran a mere 55 feet long.
To prepare the location for drinkers and diners, the restaurateur did away with the second floor and lengthened the place by 55 more feet. He installed a white marble bar than runs half the length of the restaurant, added a forest of walnut for a clean look and brightened the interior with light fixtures he designed himself.
Cervera then dressed the dining room - an homage to an oyster bar and eatery run there from 1913 to 1939 by a family named Senart, who lived upstairs - with handsome canvases, charcoal drawings and photographs from that era. Among the sweet scores: black-and-white scenes shot by the late A. Aubrey Bodine, an esteemed photojournalist for the Baltimore Sun.
The 65-seat restaurant is so narrow that the dishwasher is on display along with the crew of the open kitchen; a trap door behind the bar leads to walk-in refrigerators in the basement.
The setting, which includes two fireplaces and a beauty of a window booth, is a talker. But the cooking, from executive chef Brian Klein, who comes to Senart's from Brasserie Beck downtown, has too much in common with too much of the neighborhood competition.
Granted, chophouses tend to be where you go for a taste of tradition, but even the basics aren't done very well here. Witness the scrawny oysters, the vapid Caesar salad showered with bacon and the G-rated steak tartare. (Where's the heat?) Main courses are riddled with problems as well, including an overcooked pork chop bested by its pureed potatoes and an anemic roast chicken, the pieces stacked dramatically high on its plate yet otherwise unimpressive. It doesn't help that we're virtually ignored by our server, who doesn't bring water until the entrees appear and does a superb job of avoiding eye contact.
The only dish that matched the scenery on a recent visit was the hanger steak, served in juicy slices and crackling with salt. That and a stiff drink saved the night.
Will the duck breast with blueberry sauce and the monkfish osso buco, recent additions to the list, change my mind? For now, I know this: History buffs are more sated than chowhounds.