Eric Ziebold came up with the unusual name, appointed the chef, crafted the menu and even helped select the fabrics at Sou’Wester, the relaxed replacement for the Asian-inspired Cafe MoZU in the Mandarin Oriental hotel. Consequently, a lot of his fans, and I count myself among them, expected to find in the hotel’s new dining room meals sprinkled with some of his fairy dust.
Ziebold, 37, is the four-star talent behind the nearby CityZen, one of the toniest restaurants in the mid-Atlantic. He’s got the support of a big hotel. He hired a trusted colleague, Rachel Harriman, his former sous-chef at CityZen, to execute his vision of regional flavors. So Sou’Wester, which made its debut in September, has to be good, right?
I’m not tasting much of the master’s magic on my first encounter, where I’m greeted with some salty biscuits in the bread basket and made thirstier by a bowl of kale-and-bean soup that would be fine if it wasn’t doubling as a deer lick. The crisp skin of the fried chicken is better than what’s beneath it, but the coleslaw, finely grated, is what actually disappears on the plate. A side dish of cheese-covered broccoli and rice reads like Betty Crocker and goes down like school cafeteria fare: It’s pretty pedestrian.
If I hadn’t strolled through the marble lobby of the Mandarin Oriental to get to my table, which captures as much highway as Potomac River, I would have believed myself to be in a Marriott Courtyard deep in the ‘burbs. Less than $200,000 was put into the renovation, and it looks like it. Carved into numerous awkward spaces, the place feels sterile. Sheer, theater-length white curtains near the windows suggest South Beach, but otherwise the decor gives you little sense of place (although some guests have told Ziebold they think the light fixtures look like crab pots).
The dining area off the entrance is most inviting. There, jars of pickled carrots, green beans and beets spruce up the bare tabletops and connote a little hominess. Remember them when you order. Vegetables can make a dish here. Saving the ordinary sandwiches, for instance, is a terrific side of pickled cauliflower, green beans and other tasty vegetables. They smack of something you might be lucky to find at a farm stand in the country.
There are other welcome constants here, and one of them is fried food. Okra is sheathed in a batter that brings to mind tempura, while hush puppies, another side dish on the menu, are everything they should be: crisp, golden, light and fluffy in the center. The dessert I was most eager to try was fried apple pie, which Ziebold had described to me over the telephone as “McDonald’s on steroids.” The mass feeder should be so lucky to achieve such a wonderful merger of minced fruit, cinammon spicing and flaky pastry.
Meat is another rewarding game plan. Somebody at the table needs to order the shoat rillettes (young pig slowly cooked in fat, shredded and turned into a rich paste) and, hopefully, share it with fellow diners; the creamy spread is served in a little glass jar, with toasted bread and slivers of pickled green tomato on the side. Plenty tangy, the vegetable accent is a terrific foil for the rich rillettes. Flank steak is cooked the way you like it and nicely juicy, but good flank steak is easier to find around town than are corned beef short ribs prepared using Ziebold’s mother’s recipe. Go, Mom! The tender entree raises the notion of home cooking to high art, thanks to a horseradish-sharpened soubise (or creamy white sauce) and tender carrots and ribbons of celery framing the meat. It’s a dish that could be served in CityZen without anyone raising eyebrows. The surf equivalent is sauteed, skin-on perch set on a lovely loose chowder of potatoes, bacon and tomato. Both that meat and the fish are fully realized expressions of the theme advanced by Sou’Wester.
I wish there were more to salute. Several dishes show potential but are marred by flaws, some of them serious. A companion and I poked around a heap of $15 “crab fritters” and found fried lemon slices and onions but nothing resembling the fried seafood bites we ordered. At another meal, a friend and I marveled at the succulence of an entree of chicken but also disparaged the pasty dumplings that did the dish no favors. With my eyes closed, I would not have been able to say exactly what was in a riff on a BLT; soft tasteless tomato and soft bland pork jowl made for a dreary sandwich. I love the springy pink pork sausage that graces a plate of oysters on the half shell in a surf-meets-turf appetizer, but not the room-temperature raw bivalves. “Is everything okay?” a server asks when he stops to clear appetizer plates and notices all the uneaten oysters. We point out the problem and hear nothing but “Oh.” At lunch, there might be long lags between courses or, weirdly, rock music in the background.
Service is not a strong suit, with a notable exception. He’s Carlton McCoy, the sommelier, who not only reminds you that you’re in a grand hotel but does as commendable a job serving food as dispensing wine advice. But he needs more backing.
Desserts are throwbacks and, mostly, success stories. Banana cream pie is mellow in its sweetness and supported by a flaky, old-fashioned crust. Carrot cake is elegant and spicy with molasses and ginger. I like the cheesecake, too, garnished with plums. For sheer decadence, however, nothing beats the aforementioned hot pocket of fruit. But you’re probably not dropping by just for something sweet.
“Eric Ziebold’s latest culinary venture,” crows a blurb on Sou’wester’s Web site. The restaurant is young, and it shows -- more often than one might expect, considering its neighbor.