Worth checking out, even if not checking in
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, November 11, 2012
Some of the most enticing food of the season is heating up in a five-year-old hotel restaurant whose name trumpets an out-of-town matinee idol.
Haven’t dropped by
Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert
in a while? Or ever? Right this second is the time to book a table. The moody dining room in the Ritz-Carlton is worth your attention again, and credit goes foremost to a new face in the kitchen, Devin Bozkaya. A former sous-chef at the four-star Inn at Little Washington, Bozkaya most recently steered the Blue Rock Inn nearby.
Since his arrival in Big Washington in September, he has turned a venue that was cooking by rote much of the past year into a place that his mentor in New York, Ripert of the four-star Le Bernardin, should be happy to lend his signature.
Regulars will taste the difference tout de suite. As a diner settles in, a warm treat appears. The preview of good things to come might be a shot of sweet potato soup. Whispering of vanilla, cardamom and truffle, the three-sip amuse bouche is introduced by the cook who whipped it up. The TLC is part of the hotel’s push to “increase guest engagement,” Bozkaya says. Consider us engaged (not that you should kiss the cook).
Hotel restaurants fret about satisfying a wide variety of diners, one reason they’re typically open daily and inevitably make room for a burger or a steak, regardless of the theme of the place. The new chef helps to keep lodgers content with both solid technique and a sense of whimsy.
Cue his lamb kafta, a trio of ground lamb meatballs based on his Turkish grandmother’s recipe and one of my favorite opening acts at the bistro. Each morsel rests atop a zingy dip or sauce of its own.
Mindful of whose name is on the marquee, Bozkaya serves an elegant duck liver mousse that would look at home at Le Bernardin. Each forkful of the pink fluff yields hints of port and allspice; a garnish of brandied apples imparts sweetness
and the suggestion of fall. Spread on slices of grilled baguette, the mousse is easy to dispatch. Lobster crostino is another appetizer that revels in luxe. Poached seafood tossed in garlic aioli and spread on thin toasted bread is a lobster roll by way of Fifth Avenue: slim and chic.
I appreciate the skate wing for its simplicity. When you have a good piece of fish and show it some kindness with brown butter and slivered almonds, anything beyond crisp green beans is overthinking. Bozkaya’s busy shrimp and grits is no match for the classic served at Vidalia, but his pan-roasted striped bass boosted with braised fennel and a crab-sweetened “bouillabaisse” is destined to be duplicated.
Desserts are few but fab. Warm chocolate tart sounds standard-issue until you try it; a delicate shell and a well of rich caramel in the center nudge it to a different realm -- and this from someone who is agnostic about chocolate. Warm pistachio cake served in a tiny cast-iron pan hits the pleasure zones, too. Salted pistachio ice cream on top melts into a creamy curtain of sauce.
The amber-lit setting hasn't changed, and it didn't need to. As always, the choice seats are the roomy booths against the windows that capture a slice of life in the city. The fresh care that infuses the menu has found its way into the service and even the drinks; among them is a Manhattan with spiced apple syrup and fruit chips that's as invigorating as a brisk walk in autumn woods.