Tom Sietsema: J & G Steakhouse renews look, not menu, and drops a star

October 23, 2013

Before J&G Steakhouse went under the knife in August, it was a three-star restaurant with a muted palette and a ceiling that seemed to go on forever, a destination as prized for fish as for meat. When it emerged from renovation about a month later, the ground-floor dining attraction in the W Hotel looked just as its new general manager hoped it would: “more playful and energetic.”

John Leinhardt’s words certainly apply to the enormous suspended lanterns and the shocking red vinyl seats that push into broad walnut tables. A wall in the rear is dominated by an abstract photograph of the Capitol dome that reminds you you’re not far from the real deal just up the road. Adding to the fizz in the redesign is a small bar with seven seats and a couple of tall communal tables, where light bites — a lobster roll, beef sliders — can be washed back with such fresh cocktails as a Manhattan made marvelous with tawny port and walnut bitters.

The time off has been good for the interior, which, like recent comers on the market sidesteps the traditional manly imprint. The menu, in contrast, reads like a throwback to the days when hotel restaurants played it safe as comfort zones for guests who didn’t want to be challenged at mealtime. Shrimp cocktail, anyone? Beef carpaccio? An appetizer of minced yellowfin tuna tartare layered between harsh preserved lemon and rich avocado is also overwhelmed by a thin cover of deep-fried quinoa.

Philippe Reininger, 53 and an acolyte of the acclaimed Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York, is a talented chef. But a diner doesn’t always taste his skills in J&G’s new (yet predictable) fall menu. With notable exceptions, the recent additions hover in the realm of ... pleasant.

Take the fritters that crack open to cores of truffled cheese. What’s not to like about something fried and hot and gooey? Picture a cross between mozzarella sticks and gougeres. On the lighter side is a salad of roasted squash and curly frisee with pinches of goat cheese; the mix gets a nice jolt from a pumpkinseed vinaigrette. And the kitchen has fun with clam chowder, a pond of hot cream adrift with crisp “waves” of garlic chips.

One of the dishes that used to draw me to this restaurant, even off-duty, was Reininger’s halibut set on a racy base of black beans and chilies and crowned with cool chopped celery. I know chefs can’t keep everyone’s favorites forever, but I’m surprised this stellar signature was dropped, especially given the fish entrees that have taken its place. Steamed rockfish under a carpet of shaved mushrooms is best for the intense mushroom dashi in its bowl. Pan-fried lobster with sauteed cabbage, on the other hand, is totally forgettable, its accents of ginger and mint vague.

For the most part, meat is what you want to slice at J&G. “Six peppercorn” New York steak tastes like truth in advertising, each bite a trumpet blast of heat; the bone-in rib-eye is 20 ounces of indulgence for $54. The (mostly prime) steaks show off good shopping, and any cut is better with a dab of the house-made condiments cleverly served in ramekins that look like hollowed beef bones. New to the lineup is a pork porterhouse, blushing and thick and dense; its assets include a citrusy barbecue glaze and bright green broccoli rabe.

The side dish options include basil-brightened creamed spinach, good-not-great french fries and leeks roasted to softness beneath a red spread of romesco.

I’ve saved the best entree for last. Beef short ribs are the workhorse of many American restaurants, and you may think they’re all cut from the same cow. Not true! Reininger’s version — glossy and tender and reverberating with lemon grass and red chilies — is an upgrade from just about any class you’re coming from, thanks also to toasty, rosemary-laced panko and matchsticks of green apple crowning the meat. If you try only one dish at J&G, make it this one.

Those who pass on wine and spirits should consider the house-made sodas, which come in such appealing flavors as fresh ginger and spiced cranberry.

The pastry kitchen makes a cheesecake light enough, and luscious enough, to finish even after a full steak dinner. The ivory slice is set off with lovely contrasts of diced apples on top and shimmering riesling gelee on the plate, plus a scoop of slightly chewy pumpkin-spiced ice cream. Another sweet success is the huckleberry pie, a big round of baked fruit festooned with pear chips and delivered in a skillet with hazelnut gelato. Watch for flying spoons.

The big dessert curiosity is a single, bun-size profiterole filled with banana ice cream. The whopper looks as if it ran away from a chain restaurant. Indeed, after tasting the outsize confection, a companion speaks for the table when he says, “It looks like somebody did a stage [apprenticeship] at the Cheesecake Factory.”

Beyond the menu, a few adjustments would make this a better place to spend a couple of hours. The tinny club music — “cheap EDM,” a fellow diner knocks it — is out of tune with the setting. A bar cart rolls up to get dinner off to a festive start, and some of us are ready to pounce — until we’re told that the presentation extends only to martinis. Some servers are the sort the competition would love to poach, while others, such as the one who mentioned a dish was “86’d,” could use more rehearsal time.

The goal of a makeover is to refresh its subject. The designer got the message here; the kitchen appears to have missed it.

★★

(Good)
J&G Steakhouse

515 15th St. NW. 202-661-2440. jgsteakhousedc.
com.

OPEN: Breakfast 7 to 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, 8 to 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday; lunch 11:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 3:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

METRO:
Metro Center.

PRICES: Dinner appetizers $10 to $18, main courses $18 to $56.

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

Dinner and a show

A reservation in the dining room helps you join the “skip” line that cuts the wait for an elevator ride to the rooftop bar and its views.

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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