A little too much beige in this makeover
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011
Washington is really long on great palaces and convention hotels," says Michael Phillips, a managing director at the Atlanta-based Jamestown Properties, which bought the Madison Hotel for almost $93 million in January.
For the subsequent makeover of the 15-story property, including its main restaurant, the real estate investment firm looked back in time to establish a distinctive identity. The owners resurrected a name that had been used earlier in the life of the Madison, the Federalist, and they hired a chef, Harper McClure, who has worked in some of the city's more tradition-bound kitchens, including the French-grounded Marcel's and the Southern-accented Vidalia.
Unlike Palette, the trendy dining room with frosted windows that preceded the Federalist, the replacement strikes a convivial pose on the corner of 15th and M streets. Gas lanterns, for instance, illuminate the facade. "We wanted to create a neighborhood restaurant" rather than "a big, glossy concept restaurant," says Phillips, and to highlight food that reflects the country's origins.
New York interior designer Dominick Coyne took into account the Madison's '60s modern style, its Washington location and the restaurant's name to come up with a bar and a series of dining areas that use reclaimed wood and antique colors to evoke the talk houses, or taverns, of the Federalist era. Walls paneled in stained oak and accents of pewter, red and black suggest that our forefathers ate and drank in considerable comfort.
In keeping with the theme, McClure, 30, put meat pies, turtle soup and syllabub (a frothy cream-and-wine-based dessert of British origin) on his opening menu. I appreciate the ideas more than some of their execution. The Federalist's leek and potato tart turns out to be flatbread spread with almost as much oil as the goat cheese and potato coins on its surface. Trout splayed over amaranth with the consistency of porridge tastes as beige as it looks, despite the inclusion of a few green beans. Barley risotto bests the flabby duck leg it supports, and braised, shredded veal beneath a saucer of pastry (the aforementioned meat pie) grows tiresome after two monochromatic bites.
Glimmers of promise pop up here and there. The not-too-sweet corn bread in the bread basket harks to the chef's time at Vidalia, and if you're looking for a proper consomme, try the old-fashioned notion: Soft marbles of ground chicken and threads of leek float in a clarified chicken broth presented in a handsome pewter bowl.
Did food really have so much less flavor way back when? For the sake of our ancestors, I hope the Federalist is misreading history.