First Bite: The Grill Room in Georgetown

April 24, 2013

The fresh dining room in Georgetown’s latest hotel comes stocked with rich details.

Bubbly, anyone? Take your pick from 10 labels chilling out in the champagne cart. Want a view with that? The C&O Canal is so close to the window, you could fish in it. Pools of space separate the linen-draped tables in the 70-seat Grill Room of the Capella Washington, an oasis of elan with lavender accents, broad leather chairs and parquet floors that a waiter says came from a castle in Germany. When the staff learns your name (even if it’s a pseudonym), expect to hear it repeated again and again, by everyone on staff, with each encounter.

That last detail is actually irritating, much like the $22 pour of Far Niente chardonnay the restaurant lists on its surprisingly terse list of wines offered by the glass.

Reading the menu is like popping Zolpidem. Food enthusiasts in particular are apt to nod off as they spot all the grilled meat and side dishes that sound as though they came from a steakhouse rather than from a chef who has worked around Europe. Eyebrows go north when the amuse-bouche is set down. Bone marrow with a web of cheese on top makes a curious introduction.

Top toque Jakob Esko hails from Sweden and last cooked at Capella Singapore. He exhibits a good eye for color, as evinced by a sunburst of smoked salmon punctuated by rye croutons and orange zest, and by a vivid bowl of watercress soup that gets most of its flavor from smoked eel tucked into a pasta pouch. But the menu plays it safe to the point of being stodgy. The main course that impresses me most is halibut roasted on the bone, seasoned with espelette pepper oil and escorted by creamy sorrel risotto. Pasta carbonara with snips of Virginia ham and house-made tagliatelle is a refined version of the Italian workhorse.

Dry-aged strip loin, on the other hand, looks as though its grill stripes were created using a Sharpie. The meat is glossy and bland. For $40, I expected better (and less mushy macaroni and cheese along for the ride).

As befits a place that cost $45 million and charges $595 a room upstairs, the service is correct, the cocktails are top-shelf and the desserts — tangy lemon cream tartlette with a cap of meringue, cement-dense chocolate mousse — are displayed at lunch like gems, on a small trolley with a roll-back glass lid.

Yet early on, the Grill Room is as exciting as its name: not very.

1050 31st St. NW. 202-617-2400. www.capellahotels.com/washingtondc. Dinner entrees, $32 to $46.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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