Grill Room in the Capella: A new luxury hotel’s restaurant starts to find a groove

A grand hotel demands a great restaurant, which is not what the $50 million Capella Washington D.C. served its patrons when it threw open its doors in Georgetown in April.

For sure, the 70-seat Grill Room, limned in lavender accents and hugging the C&O Canal, exudes chic. Behold the champagne cart that rolls up to guests as they settle in, the steak tartare prepared tableside (using chopped dry-aged sirloin) and the dessert trolley that sweetens lunch with jewel-like creations presented under glass. Within the Grill Room is a private dining area that rates as one of the area’s most alluring. The 12-seat setting, with shelves displaying crystal, books and oversize wine bottles, suggests an art gallery.

But the inaugural menu offered little sense of place and played it extremely safe. While there’s nothing wrong with a good crab cake or steak — and in fairness, upscale hotel restaurants feel obliged to offer such — there wasn’t much to whet the appetite in a city that has in the past decade emerged as one of the country’s most exciting places to eat. Knowing that chef Jakob Esko, a native of Sweden, last cooked at Capella Singapore and counted tenure at Hotel Arts Barcelona, a Ritz-Carlton property, a diner could be forgiven for expecting more ad­ven­ture on the plate.

Time — and three recent taste-tests — have changed my early assessment. Esko seems to have relaxed. The proof is in his veal cheeks, soft pieces of meat swabbed with a glossy barbecue sauce lightened with orange zest and set on a loose mushroom risotto. Adding jazz to the score: broccolini cooked with star anise and coriander. Evidence of a more liberated chef also pops up in his suckling pig, in which the crackle of skin gives way to succulent flesh. Fig sauce and lime foam counter the richness of the porcine pleasure. On the lighter side is moist rainbow trout atop shaved cauliflower and circled with lemon beurre blanc.

The Grill Room is one of those infrequent restaurants where I’m tempted to order two entrees instead of an appetizer and a main course.

With one exception. Soup bowls tend to return to the kitchen licked clean. Smoked tomato soup arrives with a slender crouton, dappled with a vivid red pepper puree, that stretches across the bowl like a delicate bridge. Pureed cauliflower whispers of garlic, fennel and bacon; an island of soft goat cheese and a couple of scallops register tang and sweet in the center. Sage-scented mushroom soup is a forest of flavor swirled with funky (and delicious) bites of blood sausage and roasted garlic.

Otherwise, starters tend to be way too familiar. Glistening tuna tartare with a shock of grapefruit in its recipe is refreshing but hardly original. I prefer Esko’s treatment of another American restaurant staple, beet salad, in which warm bites of red and yellow beets are interspersed with cool frisee and goat cheese cream. A wavy cap made from gelatin and beet juice tops the pretty pile.

Esko’s daring has been rewarded. Much to his surprise, he says, wild pheasant became a bestseller when he added to the menu Scottish fowl, rubbed with sweet spices and cooked on the rotisserie. (This diner would have liked the dish, arranged on barley, had it been evenly cooked and served without its sweet pumpkin butter.) In contrast, pork chops got so little attention, they were removed from the lineup.

An odd holdover from launch: gratis crumb-topped marrow served in a beef bone with a round of indifferent bread. The restaurant should know that vegetarians, among others, might not appreciate the Flintstone-style “welcome.”

Expansive tables, curved leather chairs and stemware so light you’re surprised it doesn’t float away point to an owner who sweats the small but significant stuff. In an attempt to personalize its service, Capella trains its staff to perform multiple roles. Your hostess may also be your server, in other words, and your chef may check in on you, too.

Consistency can be elusive. Sometimes a price card accompanies the Champagne selections, other times not; sometimes the miniature lemon tart served at lunch is tangy and fresh, other times it tastes too sweet and as if it had been refrigerated overnight.

The single-page wine list does not speak to an ambitious restaurant. The cocktails, from the nearby Rye Bar, show more attention. Ask for a Manhattan, and you may be asked if you’d like it “aged.” That’s a reference to the six weeks the contents of the drink, featuring Dad’s Hat, a small-batch rye whiskey from Pennsylvania, sit in a whiskey barrel before going public. The upgrade from the standard is exquisite. It is also costly. At $24 a coupe, here’s hoping you’re either on a generous expense account or someone else is picking up the round.

Pastry chef Nelson Paz seduces first our eyes, then our taste buds. Surely I’m not the only diner to capture his Baked Alaska on an iPhone before slicing into the confection, its surface created from dozens of precise tufts of browned soft meringue hiding layers of vanilla ice cream, hazelnut sponge cake and green apple sorbet. Paz also makes an elegant “candy bar” fusing a firm vanilla custard onto a slender stick of baked chocolate and peanut crumbles. But the show-stopper is a knotty fir base supporting a fantasy in chocolate for two. The multiple pleasures include one of the best molten chocolate cakes I’ve had in ages and a confection of dark chocolate mousse and caramel creme spray-painted with liquid chocolate.

Beautiful and promising, the Grill Room has a way to go before it’s seen as top-of-the-line in all areas. This much is true right now: The restaurant is no longer as staid as its name.

Next week: Osteria Morini at Capital Riverfront.

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★★

(Good)
The Grill Room

1050 31st St. NW.
202-617-2400. thegrillroomdc.
com.

OPEN:
Breakfast 6:30
to 10 a.m. daily; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday,
5:30 p.m. to
11 p.m. Friday
and Saturday.

PRICES: Breakfast dishes $8 to $22; lunch appetizers $12 to $22, sandwiches and main courses $16 to $56; dinner appetizers $14 to $22, main courses $26 to $68.

SOUND CHECK:
74 decibels/
Must speak with raised voice.

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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