At the Westchester,
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Spaghetti pomodoro and osso buco have replaced vichyssoise and lamb kebabs at the vintage Westchester Dining Room in the sprawling Westchester apartment complex in Northwest Washington. For decades, the dowager restaurant employed a Turkish chef and his wife; last October, the owners of the convivial Al Crostino in Shaw won a food competition to take over the lease.
The change is good news for residents and visitors who enjoy pollo Milanese. The flattened chicken stays juicy beneath its light coat of crumbs and shares a plate with tasty roasted potatoes and a loose cake of garlicky boiled collard greens.
The switch should also interest soup lovers. A puree of broccoli and potatoes is rich without the help of cream. Tomato soup gets its body from bread crumbs and olive oil.
The new overseers have introduced a Sunday brunch and afternoon tea to the routine. Deals ahoy, too: The purchase of an entree on Thursday, for instance, buys a second one
But what’s up with the pasta, so limp it appears to have been cooked in a dishwasher? Don’t blame the rotating chefs, Juliana and Valentino Nicolai. Early on in their new gig, mother and son would send out al dente pasta, only to have it returned to the kitchen. Residents of the Westchester ---- designed as a luxury retreat in 1929 and home in its heyday to a slew of political types ---- like their noodles on the soft side, it turns out. Unlike the menu at Al Crostino, the list at the Westchester is a conservative read. Don’t come to the latter for octopus, because there won’t be any.
However, there is at the Westchester a nice piece of sole, sparked with lemon and capers, and tender steamed mussels in a light wash of tomato, wine and garlic. Despite the slightly overcooked pasta, spaghetti carbonara hits pleasure points with its drape of sweet onion, smoky bacon, egg and black pepper. Dessert finds several homemade finishes, including jiggly panna cotta spiked with limoncello.
Located off the lobby of the main building, the vast dining room, dressed in turquoise walls, coffered ceilings and mirrored columns, takes patrons down memory lane. So does the easy--listening background music, played at a level that allows for easy conversation.
On slow nights, Valentino Nicolai might play host. The chef’s boyish charm adds a sense of fun to the meal. Escorting a couple to a Palladian window table not long ago, the chef smiled, gestured outside and said, “See all the fresh venison!”