Eleven years ago, with Washington savoring a boom in steakhouses, I grazed through nearly 20 to determine if there was a best among the lot. While I found plenty to admire, at the end of a three-month steak streak, no single player delivered the Perfect Steakhouse Experience formed by memorable meat, first-class sides, an inviting backdrop and distinguished wine service.
Repeating the drill in the District recently, I found that at nearly a dozen restaurants, the recession and over-saturation have taken their toll. A sense of deja vu infused my exploits.
Charlie Palmer Steak
has a terrific all-American wine list and a tender aged New York strip, but perfunctory service and nothing-special Caesar salad. The blandly dressed
downtown serves its lackluster side dishes in heart-stopping portions that point to restaurants as a prime culprit in the obesity war.
shakes great drinks, but just about everything else I’ve eaten there — potatoes pureed to the texture of baby food, nutmeg-blasted creamed spinach, wan filet mignon — fails the pleasure test. And if there’s a kitchen that makes hash browns as they should be, (grated, thin and golden) rather than barely crusty potato cakes the size of Idaho, I didn’t find it.
Other discoveries: Most of the steakhouses are lit as if they were casinos. Noon looks like 8 p.m. — all the more tempting for a customer to imbibe at lunch. Lots of places claim to serve prime meat. But I have my doubts, both because of the middling quality of what I’ve been served and the reality that no more than 3 percent of the roughly 25 million head of cattle in this country get the USDA’s top grade, earned in part for the amount of marbling the beef reveals. As ever, you should hope someone else is picking up the check. A full-press steak experience, including cocktails, wine, tax and tip, runs about $150 a person.
The highlights of my meat-a-thon:
Boring bread launches most steakhouse meals. The exceptions include
in Georgetown. The former welcomes diners with mitt-size popovers, served piping hot and with their recipe attached; the latter seduces patrons with a skillet of truffle butter rolls that threaten to fill you up before even appetizers show up. Bet you can’t stop at one.
No. 1 crab cake
in the W Hotel has much to laud: a sumptuous dining room with ceilings that seem to rise forever, top-notch cocktails, crisp service and perfect lamb chops. Chef Philippe Reininger also fashions one of the city’s top crab cakes ($18, dinner only). Shaped with fresh jumbo lump crab, diced bread and just enough house-made mayonnaise to keep the treasure together, the appetizer perches on an elegant salad of artfully snipped sugar snap peas moistened with zesty remoulade. Garnishing the plate are micro pea leaves dewy with lemon vinaigrette. Bliss in every bite.
By the time I got to
Bourbon Steak, I had 10 New York strip steaks from competing restaurants under my belt (and chin). One slice into the 14-ouncer ($54) prepared a la chef Adam Sobel, who recently rolled out a local meat program, rousted me from any cynicism. The source of my immense satisfaction: grass-fed, organic beef from Piedmont Ridge in Maryland. Per the chef’s request, the meat is aged for 50 days, or what Sobel calls “the sweet spot,” then briefly poached in butter before hitting the grill. Tender, succulent and juicy, the primal pleasure comes with a hint of earthiness. Try the role model with snap peas briefly sauteed with ginger, garlic and purple shiso from the restaurant’s own garden.