Edison's formula for genius was 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. In that vein, great cooking might be said to be 10 percent conception and 90 percent execution. Juniper, the Fairmont Hotel's white-linen hideaway, scores pretty well on invention but comes up woefully short on sweat equity.
Okay, so again, everybody has to understand the frustrations of running a hotel restaurant -- undependable customer numbers, having to serve tourists who are more likely in search of an easy and unchallenging meal than a cutting-edge destination (and the consequent struggle to maintain recipe interest within a budget), etc. -- but this is not chef Martin Saylor's first such situation: He came to attention here as Patrick Clark's sous-chef and then chef in his own right at the Hay-Adams. (He was also the opening chef at Butterfield 9 and private chef for Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve.)
Nor, as Juniper's next-door neighbor Melrose shows, is the West End hotel strip a turnoff to local patrons, despite M Street traffic, and, in fact, the ongoing renovation of Melrose and the Grand Hyatt offers Juniper a chance to make a niche for itself. And though it's certainly true that most of Juniper's flaws probably originated with the line cooks, it's the chef's responsibility to hire or train his staff.
So why is it that, well into its second year, dining at Juniper still feels as if the kitchen is just shaking down?
An appetizer of smoked goat cheese over artichoke bottoms would have been fine -- the chevre was at the perfect temperature and texture, and the artichokes at the exact tenderness -- but for the unpleasant surprise of a good quarter-inch of choke that remained hidden under the cheese on both hearts. The Peking duck roll was nearly fun, but it arrived tepid so that the oil was unduly intrusive. Tuna tartare, from the spa-cuisine mini-menu, had been so inundated with soy sauce that scarcely any other flavor could penetrate the palate, not even the jalapenos.
Yet another health-menu appetizer, described as coriander-crusted scallops with mashed potatoes, arugula, peanuts and blood orange vinaigrette, emerged with a pair of scallops that had been cut horizontally in half so that they overcooked to rubber and whose scorching erased any evidence of herb; with mandarin orange sections rather than blood oranges, which were much too sweet and clashed with the shellfish (and had not been divested of their seeds); and drenched with a dead ringer for my balsamic-mayo dip. The potatoes were good, though.
This is not shallow thinking, but it is certainly lazy cooking, and not inexpensive (the scallops appetizer is $15). Chili-rubbed duck breast didn't taste of spice, dried or fresh, and the butternut squash hash was both a couple minutes' short of tender and smothered in the oil of its onion relish companion. A trout that one night was substituting for the flounder lay so nakedly unseasoned and unsauced that it seemed embarrassed to be on the same plate as the far more intriguing crab and potato hash. And the intriguing sea bass turbans, curls of fish wrapped around asparagus spears and prosciutto, had all the flavor of a photo-shoot mock-up because the fish was similarly naked and dried out beyond redemption.
Happily, there are much brighter moments. The huge, barely bound and delicately sauteed crab cakes are among the biggest and best in town; alas for the uneaten second cake that never returned from the kitchen in a doggie bag. The high-quality crab is showcased again in a Chesapeake Bay-style soup and, on the seasonal menu, crab-stuffed shrimp. The gnocchi with mushrooms, Parmesan cheese and truffle oil are more hearty than airy, but entirely satisfying as a comfort-food starter. In fact, the bowl is large enough for a main course; generosity is clearly not one of Saylor's problems.
The bison rib-eye was nicely trimmed, cooked precisely as ordered and exactly, delicately seasoned. Saylor's "mid-Atlantic" menu leans heavily on surf and turf (and there is a lobster and tenderloin pairing), and it's a relief to find someone paying attention to the often unconsidered meat side. Grilled quail comes with green chili-mint salsa and eggplant relish, a much more complementary ensemble than the nutty scallops. And watercress is a smart and cleansing accompaniment to veal piccata with polenta.
The bread is good, the butter at room temperature and the hummus that comes as an alternative spread a pleasant thought. The amuse-bouches, particularly a smoked salmon mousse on wonton crisp, have been nice as well, so some things still pique Saylor's interest.
This is tough love, and tough to say. But Saylor is too good and too experienced to let his staff get into such sloppy habits. (And then there was the waiter who opened the M Street-side door to chat with a passing friend and stood there until one of the several tables of shivering customers recalled him to duty.) New Year's is a good time for housecleaning; let's see what a motivated Saylor can do.