Open for lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m., for diner Monday through Saturday 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Valet parking for dinner. Prices: Main dishes at lunch average $11, main dishes at dinner average $16. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $40 a person.
A couple of years ago we were constantly complaining about Washington's lack of good seafood restaurants. In response, we have been pelted with seafood restaurants, drowning in seafood restaurants, bewildered by seafood restaurants opening all around us. The Fishery. Oceans IX. Falls Landing. Vincenzo's. Charley's Crab. Barclay's. More. And more. And now Wheeler's.
Thus, it seems unfair to evaluate Wheeler's in the midst of such an explosion. Two years ago we would have been thrilled by its appearance; today the news comes with a yawn and a skeptic's let's-wait-and-see.
Two years ago the menu alone would have given us pleasure: salmon, trout, Dover sole, lobster, scallops, shrimp, red snapper, rockfish (and more,) each with its own compartment on the page, telling that you can have it steamed or sauteed, bedded with fennel or sauced with curry, gilded with truffles and lobster, garnished with asparagus, topped with shrimp, oysters, mussels, mushrooms. Now we're more jaded; we question whether the "fresh shrimp" were really never frozen -- in any case they were tough and didn't have much taste. And we find the flown-in Dover sole just, well, nice, not quite worth the hoopla of importing by jet and wrapping around lobster and decorating with truffles (which, being canned, have no taste at all).
So let's start with what is special, even given the heavy competition. The best of Wheeler's are its beginnings and endings. You can start with the oysters -- belons from Maine or the more usual Long Islands, but topped with caviar, real caviar, an astonishingly generous portion of it. Or you can have your oysters Rockefeller style, in a delectable version with the oysters just warmed, the spinach tasting fresh and Pernod-scented, and the topping a lemony hollandaise. Mixed seafoods come hot, in a scallop shell, combined with a superlative lemony, buttery cream sauce. Or they come cold, cupped in a bed of lettuce, good enough but plain and no competition for the hot dish. The clam chowder is a simple matter of being the best. Inches deep in moist fresh clams, the broth is light, yet buttery and creamy, tasting of clam juice and parsley. Extraordinary soup. Wonderful start.
The finish can be marvelous, too, for this seafood restaurant produces some excellent tarts, changing daily depending on what fruits are in season. Don't miss the raspberry. The crusts are flaky and buttery, the fruits glittery with jam. And instead of a soggy custard layer turning the crust to mush, the base for the fruit is spongecake, soaking up the juices.
But what about the middle? That depends on you. And the kitchen's mood. And the suppliers. And airline schedules. We've had good luck with the daily special; softshell crabs were five on a plate, the tiniest and sweetest little crabs, sauteed lightly and sauced with a drizzle of butter deglazed with white wine. And grouper lay moist and fresh under a veil-thin crust of flour, garnished with bright green asparagus and paler artichoke bottoms. Both were excellent, but accompanying them was wild rice totally dry and unseasoned. Less luck with main courses -- the boring but expensive Dover sole and shrimp in an overthickened curry that didn't hide their tastelessness, though they came with wild rice permeated with butter and rosemary, tossed with toasted almonds. We appreciated that the scallops are those delicate little bay scallops, served in generous measure. And the salmon is of fine quality, particularly interesting when topped with pistachios, in terms of contrasting color, texture and flavor. But overcooking is common in this kitchen. And one day the kitchen was out of lobsters to be steamed, yet had lobster for salads and sauced dishes; it was lacking flavor and tough besides.
Wheeler's goes to the trouble to carve boiled potatoes and carve carrots the same shape to garnish its fish. And it arranges the breads carefully on a plate. But the rolls have been stale, and the pumpernickel is standard and presliced bread. The service has flourishes of tableside warming, but having three people cleaning off your table between courses is a little overwhelming. In all, the service is good -- smooth, informative, pleasant. The wine list is indeed attractive, with a choice of whites from numerous countries and a very nice white burgundy as a house wine (plus a few reds, as there are a few white meat dishes on the menu). Prices are high -- the house wine is around $11 -- though no higher than downtown's elegant restaurants have established.
And this is an elegant restaurant. Dining rooms are in the rear of the first floor and up a flight to a long room overooking Pennsylvania Avenue. The carpet and walls are a dark and luscious winy red, the tableclothes pink and set with a single rose and tiny baby's breath. Art Deco touches -- a Lucite banister, smoked mirrored planter and silvery painted railing -- are lightly played against some particulary attractive abstract paintings and a ceiling and wall draped in fragile pink fabric. It is a pretty place to spend your time. A good place to eat, too, when you make a lucky catch from the menu, which is indeed well stocked.