Jeff Tunks is cooking on K Street once again. In the decade since he left the River Club, on K Street under the freeway in Georgetown, he's been chef at the Crescent Court in Dallas, the Coronado Bay Resort in San Diego and the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans, fine places to hone one's talents and further one's skill with seafood. Now he's back in Washington to make a splash. His 260-seat restaurant has a main dining room two stories high, a glassed-in balcony, a 50-seat wine room and a long stretch of bar and counter seating. There's even a chef's table, and an open kitchen so that hundreds at a time can watch Tunks show what he's learned. And every night, hundreds do so. Tunks has been welcomed with open arms and waving credit cards. The attuned and the well-heeled among D.C. diners seem to have been waiting for this one to open.
DC Coast is a stunner. Just inside the art deco Tower Building, an immense sculpted mermaid establishes that this is not just a seafood restaurant but a Big Deal. Beyond, hostesses add a human note of welcome. One thing Tunks learned was how to train a staff; from the bartenders to the waiters, the service is intelligent and responsive.
Despite the monumental space (the oval mirrors and flower arrangements look like furnishings for giants), the room is neither too cold nor too flashy. The kitchen is framed in acres of copper, to be sure, and the ceiling is half gilt, but the rest is Colonial blue with tidy white trim, and the snaking wall of wood that separates the elevated bar from the dining room has a glowing warmth. The white tablecloths are covered with white paper, bistro style, which tempers the grandeur.
DC Coast clearly insists on being on the cutting edge, from the design of the furniture to the plating of the food. In fact, having lunch at the bar-area counter is great fun, because it gives you a bird's-eye view of the dishes at the tables below. This menu is quite a fashion show.
In the coming year, if DC Coast is a bellwether, we will not only be dining under an Asian influence, but we'll have managed to move beyond the fussy and precious to food that is dramatic yet still looks natural. No evenly spaced dots of sauce on the plate. No rhythmic sauce painting. No slices of meat fanned like a cardsharp's hand.
Since Tunks was already celebrated at the River Club for his Chinese-style smoked lobster with crisp-fried spinach, his Asian sensibilities are not new. Here he's added an appetizer of Chinese lacquered duck in a Peking pancake. It doesn't quite taste like Peking duck the skin is not so lean and the meat is less supple but it is good, and far prettier than the typical Chinese presentation. Among the entrees is a dazzling Hong Kong-style whole bass that's exactly as moist inside its crackly batter as one would wish, with a clear and tangy soy dipping sauce. Peking-style glazed poussin is far too sweet and soggy, though, and the Vietnamese shrimp toast appetizer at lunch is skimpy and a bit squishy from sitting in its sesame vinaigrette, not to mention priced at twice what it would cost in a Vietnamese restaurant.
Only half the appetizers are seafood, and they're not necessarily the best of the list. Oysters on the half shell with a dollop of vodka-and-pickled-ginger ice is startlingly refreshing, though the granita-like ice drowns out the taste of the oysters. In summer, oysters tend not to be so flavorful on their own, so I didn't mind, except when I realized this appetizer cost $11. I was more enchanted by the osso buco ravioli stuffed with coarsely chopped braised veal, accompanied by a marrow bone. And I marveled that the same hand that wrought that subtle pasta could turn out a rousing crusty chile relleno that oozed pureed mushrooms and goat cheese in a cloud of earthy perfume. The Mexican dish was no less masterful than the Italian.
The Tahitian tuna tartare, lemony and coconut-rich in a coconut shell, is suave and balanced. The fried oysters, though they may need seasoning, are cornmeal-crusted and spurt when you bite through. They're on the appetizer list at lunch, or can be ordered atop the Caesar salad at dinner. Even plain smoked salmon is superb, cured in-house.
Nor would you want to miss the drama of Tunks's soups, whether the lobster bisque with lobster-and-asparagus won tons or the red pepper soup with a ratatouille timbale. The best, though, is the frequent special of New England clam chowder, smoky with diced bacon and chock-full of sweet fresh clams and potato, sometimes with corn. The cream-thickened broth is as flavorful as the clams themselves.
If you're not careful, you could be too full to appreciate your main course. Entrees are large. And some of them are fabulous. Consider the tower of crab cake and crispy soft-shell crab. For his crab cakes, Tunks has found the perfect balance between lump crab meat, creamy binder and seasoning. And the large soft-shell crab could make you rethink any resistance to deep-frying the creatures. The crust is as airy as tempura, and it seals in all the crab's juices. The side of lemony corn and pickled okra is inspired.
Less showy but equally delicious is halibut encased in mushroom paste with porcini broth and a drift of truffled potato puree that tastes at least half butter. Salmon, too, is quietly excellent, set on a bed of creamy grits and sharpened with a charred tomato vinaigrette. Pan-seared grouper with a New Orleans maque choux a stew of crawfish and corn would star in lesser company, but here it's an also-ran. The only lapse I've found in Tunks's seafood cooking is the gumbo at lunch; despite flawless shellfish, it is gluey and pallid, and cries out for the dark richness of a roux.
Tunks knows how to cook meat beautifully, but he seems to confuse it with dessert. The rib-eye steak could be one of the best you'd ever eaten remember the New Orleans penchant for seasoning and blackening but it's drenched with what tastes like syrup. Yet its quesadilla with blue cheese and caramelized onion is just right.
Where's the room for dessert? Creme brulee is nicely made but oh, so rich, and the chocolate hazelnut tower is one of those melt-in-the-mouth wonders that taste all butter and chocolate. Even the souffles are heavy. If you want at least the suggestion of lightness, there's a stellar lemon meringue tart, so wonderfully acidic that it wakes your taste buds up again.
You might leave DC Coast wishing to try that ravioli, chile relleno, tuna tartare or crab cake again and again. But you won't leave hungry.
DC Coast Restaurant 1401 K St. NW. 202/216-5988. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m.; bar menu available Monday through Thursday 2:30 to 11 p.m., Friday 2:30 to 11:30 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: lunch appetizers $5.95 to $10.50, entrees $11.95 to $17.95; dinner appetizers $5.95 to $11.95, entrees $15.95 to $22.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $45 to $70 per person.
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