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Not-So-Sweet Excess
At Posh, quantity doesn't equal quality

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, May 6, 2007

1/2 star Posh

730 11th St. NW

202-393-0975

www.poshdc.com

Open: lunch Tuesday through Friday noon to 2 p.m.; dinner Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. All major credit cards. No smoking. Metro: Metro Center. Valet parking at dinner. Dinner prices: appetizers $7 to $18, entrees $21 to $30. Full meal with wine, tax and tip about $90 per person.

Posh? It strives to be. But more often than not, the downtown supper club brought to us by the Bethesda-based RLJ Companies -- founded by Robert L. Johnson of BET fame -- is a study in splash, an example of excess, a lesson in more as less.

Some of that largesse is welcome. An enthusiastic voice on the other end of the phone at Posh takes my reservation, as if I'm her sole task for the day. Then she asks, "Can I help you with anything else?" (I briefly flirt with the idea of asking her to pick up my dry cleaning, but think better.) That evening, when a gregarious manager stops by my table, he informs my friends and me that Posh is much more than a place to eat. "You should come on the weekend," he says, extending an invitation to the Friday and Saturday night fever that includes a live DJ and tables cleared for dancing around 10:30 p.m.

Across the board, Posh, which replaces the tropical Ortanique, swells with generosity. The booths hugging the perimeters of the restaurant -- a cavernous space that features a small stage in one corner, a bar with a big projection screen and a second-floor balcony overlooking the main dining room -- resemble upholstered Tilt-A-Whirls. The seats are big and comfortable. The shrimp cocktail that passes by my table one night is just big, served in a cocktail glass the size of a bird bath and trailed by a fog of dry ice. Posh could not be faulted for being stingy, what with the amuse-bouche that starts the meal, the house-made confections that end it, and the service that, much like Sally Field accepting an Oscar, really, really wants you to like it.

So why do I keep looking at my watch and wishing I were home?

Maybe it's the decor. Oh, the aquarium in the lobby, a holdover from the original restaurant here (BET on Jazz), is quietly entertaining. But venture further inside, and you'll find swoops of gold fabric competing with purple paint, and clashing with sconces of bulbs and metal that appear to be icy branches. Playing up its role as a nightspot, Posh broadcasts on that screen above the bar an endless loop of theater curtains opening and closing on the restaurant's name. The result is a cross between a Las Vegas showroom and a high school gym that's been dressed for the prom.

As conscientious as the service is, I wish everyone here would stop asking diners if everything is all right and just make sure that the cocktails show up before I start collecting Social Security and that the wine list matches the contents of the cellar; not once in multiple visits to Posh was the first wine I wanted available, either by the glass or the bottle.

I can forgive the look of the place. I can overlook a missing wine or plates landing in front of people who didn't order them. But, ultimately, restaurants exist to serve food, and Posh isn't cooking to my heart's content, or even close to that. The warning signs appear early on, with a gift from the chef: an ordinary wedge of pita bread topped with a bit of smoked salmon and a freezer-cold dab of hummus one night, and an oily slice of mushroom scattered with arid lobster crumbles another visit.

Some ideas sound like delicious jokes but fall flat on the tongue. Take the lamb "lollipops," which translate as three choplets standing in a small bowl of a cloying mix of rum, mint and simple syrup that attempts to mimic a mojito. Too bad the lamb has no savor (with your eyes closed, it would be difficult to distinguish what type of meat you were eating) and the sweet liquid makes your teeth itch. Lobster bisque, clumsily served in the hollow of a round of bread, tastes mostly of cream, but the real head-scratcher is on the rim of the plate, where pinches of the toasted and spiced bread make for an odd garnish. Maybe the calamari is better? Maybe not. The fried appetizer emphasizes batter over seafood, and its dip could pass for canned spaghetti sauce. A plate of snails are tender but also tasteless, and they're mismatched with dull thimbles of pastry that only underscore the appetizer's blandness.

But then, something good. The kitchen, under the command of 27-year-old Christopher Willis, the former private chef for novelist Tom Clancy, makes a crab cake that is fat with seafood and crisp with panko. The appetizer is simply decorated with strips of jicama and mango and presented on a plate streaked with a balsamic sauce. More! More! I think to myself. And when a cone of thin, skin-on fries arrives at my table, and my companions and I finger-fight for the last one, I begin to think there might be more to Posh than some unpleasant meals to the tune of good music.

My hopes are quickly dashed. The fries accompany a pallid steak that won't worry the competition at any of the city's meat markets. Neither will the fish dishes cause sleepless nights for nearby seafood houses. A wet slab of sea bass garnished with an orange tangle of fried sweet potatoes and overcooked rockfish served on a cedar plank alongside stiff coins of polenta are not exactly lures. "Cajun" bowtie pasta, with its mild cream sauce, appears to be channeling Iowa. And what's with the seaweed garnish? Did any of these dishes go through a taste test before they went public? At least the Cornish game hen is nicely juicy beneath its pomegranate glaze.

The towering chocolate "utopia" fits in perfectly with the decor at Posh. A river of molten milk chocolate cascades from the top of a revolving contraption whose base serves as a moat for dunking fresh fruit and marshmallows from a bag; the quality of the chocolate is not high, but the dessert provides a few moments of amusement. An apple tart is acceptable, and I appreciate its restrained sweetness. The chocolate "sushi roll" is just the opposite, sugary fudge wrapped around chopped dried fruit, rolled in coconut and cut into thick slices. The confection comes with a pair of chopsticks and dabs of green that turn out to be wasabi mixed with powdered sugar and cream. Everyone who samples the condiment, which is at once hot and achingly sweet, cringes.

We shake our heads again when I get the bill, tucked in a black card that announces "The Damage." The endurance contest ends up costing almost $100 a person -- more than what I've paid at some of the city's three-star performers.

One of the roles of a critic is to help people make good investments of their time and money. In the case of Posh, I wasted mine, so you don't have to.

To chat with Tom Sietsema online, go to washingtonpost.com on Wednesdays at 11 a.m.

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