Tom Sietsema: Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert, Fire


Chef Devin Bozkaya at the Westend Bistro. (Scott Suchman/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
November 7, 2012

Some of the most enticing food of the season is heating up in a five-year-old hotel restaurant whose name trumpets an out-of-town matinee idol.

Haven’t dropped by Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert in a while? Or ever? Right this second is the time to book a table. The moody dining room in the Ritz-Carlton is worth your attention again, and credit goes foremost to a new face in the kitchen, Devin Bozkaya. A former sous-chef at the four-star Inn at Little Washington, Bozkaya most recently steered the Blue Rock Inn nearby.

Since his arrival in Big Washington in September, he has turned a venue that was cooking by rote much of the past year into a place that his mentor in New York, Ripert of the four-star Le Bernardin, should be happy to lend his signature.

Regulars will taste the difference tout de suite. As a diner settles in, a warm treat appears. The preview of good things to come might be a shot of sweet potato soup. Whispering of vanilla, cardamom and truffle, the three-sip amuse bouche is introduced by the cook who whipped it up. The TLC is part of the hotel’s push to “increase guest engagement,” Bozkaya says. Consider us engaged (not that you should kiss the cook).

Hotel restaurants fret about satisfying a wide variety of diners, one reason they’re typically open daily and inevitably make room for a burger or a steak, regardless of the theme of the place. The new chef helps to keep lodgers content with both solid technique and a sense of whimsy.


Westend’s Duck Liver Mousse. (Scott Suchman/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Cue his lamb kafta, a trio of ground lamb meatballs based on his Turkish grandmother’s recipe and one of my favorite opening acts at the bistro. Each morsel rests atop a zingy dip or sauce of its own.

Mindful of whose name is on the marquee, Bozkaya serves an elegant duck liver mousse that would look at home at Le Bernardin. Each forkful of the pink fluff yields hints of port and allspice; a garnish of brandied apples imparts sweetness and the suggestion of fall. Spread on slices of grilled baguette, the mousse is easy to dispatch. Lobster crostino is another appetizer that revels in luxe. Poached seafood tossed in garlic aioli and spread on thin toasted bread is a lobster roll by way of Fifth Avenue: slim and chic.

I appreciate the skate wing for its simplicity. When you have a good piece of fish and show it some kindness with brown butter and slivered almonds, anything beyond crisp green beans is overthinking. Bozkaya’s busy shrimp and grits is no match for the classic served at Vidalia, but his pan-roasted striped bass boosted with braised fennel and a crab-sweetened “bouillabaisse” is destined to be duplicated.

Desserts are few but fab. Warm chocolate tart sounds standard-issue until you try it; a delicate shell and a well of rich caramel in the center nudge it to a different realm — and this from someone who is agnostic about chocolate. Warm pistachio cake served in a tiny cast-iron pan hits the pleasure zones, too. Salted pistachio ice cream on top melts into a creamy curtain of sauce.

The amber-lit setting hasn’t changed, and it didn’t need to. As always, the choice seats are the roomy booths against the windows that capture a slice of life in the city. The fresh care that infuses the menu has found its way into the service and even the drinks; among them is a Manhattan with spiced apple syrup and fruit chips that’s as invigorating as a brisk walk in autumn woods.

***

Take three weeks off and shell out $300,000 for a makeover, and you, too, will attract fresh eyes. Dark for much of September, the 10-year-old Firefly in the Hotel Madera re-emerged at the end of the month with a fresh palette, a slew of new drinks and a recently appointed chef de cuisine.

Firefly’s signature, candle-lit faux tree still stands, but it has been joined by a porch swing up front. Ever hear of sound-absorbing paint? Neither had this diner until I read Firefly’s press release, which flagged paint and vinyl-wrapped panels as attempts to tamp down a long-running noise problem in the low-ceilinged restaurant. (The space stills gets loud but nowhere near the decibel level as before.)

Reclaimed windows now frame the kitchen, where chef Todd Wiss (ex Radius) takes over day-to-day duties from Danny Bortnick, promoted in February to director of restaurant operations for the D.C. area properties run by San Francisco-based boutique hotelier Kimpton. Among Wiss’s contributions are a hillock of crisp kale garnished with batons of sweet apple and dressed with an assertive cider-and-mustard vinaigrette, and pimento cheese fritters served with a smoky onion marmalade made with bacon. (I swear, bacon is going on its 15,000th minute of fame at this point.)

Drinks master Jon Harris, formerly of the esteemed Gibson, shakes his way into your heart with playful-yet-lethal cocktails. Bitter Reality intrigues me with tequila, Campari, absinthe and the Greek spirit Skinos Mastiha; a clever, booze-free “beer” draws on barley soda, hop-infused syrup and grapefruit juice.

Firefly’s food tends to mirror its homey interior. Roast chicken is a natural here, and it’s good. Fans of the “mini” pot roast will be reassured to find it back and rib-sticking as ever. The beef is as it should be: winy, tender, crisp on top and tucked into its skillet with tender baby carrots and mashed potatoes that would make a rich promotion for the dairy industry. Thick slices of pink pork tenderloin burst with uncommon flavor. Surely it helps to have made-in-Virginia Papa Weaver’s pride in the center of the plate, where crisp butternut squash gnocchi and over-caramelized Brussels sprouts also gather.

Warm Parker House rolls still show up in a pail, but it’s not all Fannie Farmer here. Trend-seekers can content themselves with grilled octopus set off with sliced avocado. Smoked whitefish brandade, a strapping starter, is soupy for my taste, and braised lamb pasta is a messy main course crowded with cherries, cheese and mushrooms. Both dishes are skippable.

Dessert is not. Go for the slender peanut butter ice cream sandwich or,
in keeping with the outdoorsy theme here, a pretty s’more centered with chocolate mousse and capped with bruleed marshmallow. With Firefly’s abundant wood and warm light as backdrop, a diner can almost imagine crickets chirping.

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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