“This is a coronation, not an interview,” John McDonnell, president of the operation, recalls telling Eom last August. His new bosses agreed that the Korean native, 44, presented “the best tasting of anyone” throughout a five-month search for someone to take charge of the grand dame and its underground tavern, the Tombs.
Having eaten Eom’s food three times since he came aboard in September, most recently this winter, I can understand the eagerness to acquire his skill set in the shadow of Georgetown University. 1789 is serving some of the best high-end takeout in Washington right now, food that’s also expertly packaged and true to the classic sentiment of the restaurant, an entertainment venue over its six decades for business executives, diplomats, families of college students and anyone who saved up for a night to remember. (Me in my college days in Washington, living off tips from slinging deep-dish pizza at Uno.)
Eom’s seductions include hand-cut steak tartare flanked with slender bars of golden fried potatoes, curry-laced squash soup fancied up with coconut milk panna cotta and halibut decked out with a light-as-air lid of toasted brioche — dishes you are apt to recognize but whose clever touches make them seem fresh, and easy as Dolly Parton to like.
My last review was three years ago, when I encountered a slight disconnect between the restaurant’s mission statement and what appeared on the plate, and even a physical addition, in the form of a bar and club room, that seemed forced on the brand.
The arrival of Eom, preceded by the hiring of Brian Zipin as general manager the year before, prompts a fresh look. Both men bring serious credentials to the table. Eom has worked for the esteemed Daniel Boulud in New York, where he met Bertrand Chemel, now the executive chef at 2941 in Falls Church, another stop on Eom’s journey to 1789. Zipin most recently oversaw the front of the house at the very good Central Michel Richard downtown. The two men head up a team of people who seem dedicated to elevating the reputation of 1789, whose Federal-style facade gives way to several well-aged rooms, each with its own charms. A hearth and floral displays grace the main dining room; the handsome pub is lit with an old gas chandelier.
Fine points are in abundance. The restaurant shaves a few dollars off takeout prices. “You’re not getting the fireplace, you’re not getting the service,” says Zipin. True, but the kitchen arranges its food to go as if it’s headed under Anton Ego’s microscope.
Just look at the pheasant ballotine, ground pheasant and duck liver foie gras in a band of puff pastry, served as thin slices alongside a pinch of salad and spark plugs including pickled Swiss chard stems. At home, the only thing the appetizer seems to be missing is a landing spot of cream-colored linen.
When I lift the lid on a carton of beef tartare, an oval of chopped American wagyu, zesty with mustard and lemon juice, I see the same precise dots of black garlic aioli alongside it that customers get in the dining room.
Meals come with a gratis box of pillowy, house-baked rolls and — another plus — room-temperature butter.
The 1789 team doesn’t make takeout recipients guess what they’re about to eat. Labels tell you what you need to know about the contents of the substantial containers, which neatly separate garnishes and sides from featured attractions (and cost the restaurant $1.25 each). Should you have any questions once you’re home, a note inside the bag, printed on the kind of rich stock associated with wedding invitations, lists a number to call. I didn’t use the line as an anonymous takeout customer, but as a critic fact-checking his copy. The reason for the pine nut puree in an order of black truffle risotto was so Eom can avoid using cheese or cream and offer something for vegans. A plastic cup of smoked sea salt lets recipients season the aged acquerello rice to their taste. The flakes also impart light crunch to the entree.
No two entrees are dressed the same. Halibut is elevated by roasted fingerling potatoes, bright carrots, grill-softened leeks and fennel, plus a saffron-mussel broth. Tournedos Rossini — blushing beef tenderloin paired with foie gras — rests on sauteed spinach alongside buttery potato puree. Monkfish is as pleasing for its creamy tarbais beans, crisp lardons and silken red peppers as for the thick roasted centerpiece. The spark in the veal tagliatelle, enough for dinner for two? Orange zest brightens the braised cubed meat and ribbons of handmade pasta, rich with a reduction made from the braising liquid of the veal, orange juice and butter, which explains the gloss.
Here and there, the food speaks to the chef’s heritage. Note his use of black garlic, and the Korean-pickled turnips and radishes with the ballotine. But the outside influences are whispers rather than shouts. Eom never lets you forget you’re eating American food. Then again, the glory of American cuisine is the way it borrows from other cultures and comes up with something all its own.
The hands behind the wonderful rolls belong to pastry chef Shari Maciejewski, 28, who kept busy when the dining rooms were closed by selling brunch boxes and seasonal pastries on Saturdays. 1789’s sole takeout dessert option is apple Paris-Brest, a glorious round of pastry stuffed with a creamy, maple-flavored filling and apple compote, a confection I never tired of eating. I had a chance to taste more of Maciejewski’s range with a Valentine’s Day special, an elegant spin on Black Forest cake combining flourless chocolate cake, chocolate mousse and cherries spiked with brandy. Five years in the pastry department at the Inn at Little Washington have clearly influenced her fine work here.
Was I tempted to book a table and eat off 1789’s china? Only for a nanosecond. Handsome as the trio of dining spaces are, I can’t in good conscience recommend dining indoors right now. The closest I got was inside the foyer, where I went to collect one of three recent takeout orders and my temperature was taken near the host stand. In my few minutes inside, I glimpsed the tony pub and learned about 1789’s safety protocols, including a new hospital-grade air filtration system. (The Tombs, dependent on college students, remains closed for the near future.)
“Can we help you with your bags?” Zipin himself asked a masked, capped — hidden — me when I showed up for carryout. I declined the assistance, but appreciated his suggestion to switch my takeout cocktail selection from one made with sparkling wine that would have flattened on the journey home to the more stable, gin-based Road to Provence sweetened with herbes de Provence syrup and lightened with cucumber water. (FYI: Zipin is happy to consult over the phone on wines to go, plucked from a cellar of about 250 different bottles, with a focus on major U.S. wine-growing regions, as well as France.)
Before the pandemic, 1789 was once the rare restaurant with a dress code. Now, jackets for men are “not required, but suggested,” says the general manager. He knows some people pay a lot for designer jeans and shirts. “We’ve tried to meet the times.” Besides, he wants the place to be considered for other than special occasions.
1789 is an old restaurant with a new way of looking at things. It’s also a wonderful illustration of aging with relevance.
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1789 Restaurant 1226 36th St. NW. 202-965-1789. 1789restaurant.com.
Open for takeout and delivery 5:15 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, for inside dining 5:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Prices: Takeout appetizers $14 to $16, main courses $28 to $48; dining room appetizers $15 to $21, main courses $31 to $52. Delivery via Door Dash, Grub Hub, Post Mates and Uber Eats. Accessibility: Wheelchair users are directed to a door near the main entrance, inside of which is also an ADA-compliant restroom.