The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2019 Spring Dining Guide.
Like the Eaton DC hotel in which the restaurant is set, chef Tim Ma’s latest menu is progressive. A diner can start with potato croquettes that look like funnel cake (but taste savory rather than sweet) and finish with an almost-all-white dessert (a bowl of tapioca set off with shards of meringue and passion fruit-mango ganache). In between are dishes designed to please a swath of customers, from beef cheeks on a puddle of grits to a “large format” shareable entree that displays the chef’s passion for Korean barbecue: a vegetarian delight of spaghetti squash tucked into lettuce leaves with racy condiments.
The name? It’s a reference to Ma, a second-generation Chinese immigrant who spent part of his youth in rural Arkansas. The future chef adapted so well, his mother introduced him to fellow Chinese people as her American son. She should be proud of how well he’s feeding us now.
2 1/2 stars
American Son: 1201 K St. NW. 202-900-8416. americanson1978.com.
Open: Dinner daily, breakfast and lunch weekdays, brunch weekends.
Prices: Dinner $10 to $26, sharing plates $30 to $125.
Sound check: 81 decibels / Extremely loud.
The following review was originally published March 27, 2019.
American Son should make this chef’s parents proud
It’s no longer enough for a hotel to offer beds, bars and banquets. (Have you heard the one about the robot that makes room deliveries at Aloft? It’s called a Botlr, of course.) Consumers are interested in rooms and food with a point of view, preferably progressive.
The game-changing in Washington began in earnest with the arrival in 2017 of the Line hotel in Adams Morgan — a church rethought as a place to sleep, perchance to eat and drink — and continues with Eaton DC on K Street NW, conceived by Katherine “Kat” Lo, the daughter of Hong Kong real estate mogul Ka Shui Lo.
Unveiled in September, the 209-room attraction embraces the notion of five pillars — hotel, house, media, wellness and impact — that explain the presence of a meditation space, Radical Library, in-house radio station and poultry from a zero-waste farm where chickens feast on surplus vegetables and leftovers from farmers markets. The restrooms behind the lobby are gender-neutral, which I discovered when I walked in on a woman washing her hands. When I apologized and started to leave, she merely smiled and nodded for me to use one of the (enclosed) stalls.
The venue’s featured restaurant is called American Son. It’s a reference to Tim Ma, a second-generation Chinese immigrant who spent part of his youth in rural Arkansas and went on to open, most recently, Kyirisan, the well-received French-Chinese dining experience in Shaw.
The chef has a full plate at Eaton DC. The menus for the hotel’s coffee shop, cocktail lounge, rooftop bar, banquets and in-room service are his responsibility, and the 120-seat American Son is open daily, morning to night. True of most hotels, everything had to be approved by committee.
A charming, handwritten note to his parents opens the menu. In it, he thanks them for introducing his sister and him to the American way of life. “You taught us a language you did not know, fed us food you could not cook and immersed us in a culture you did not understand.” Ma adapted so well, his mother introduced him to fellow Chinese people as her American son.
“I like to walk the fine line between familiar and strange,” Ma has told me in the past, and his popular gnocchi made with tofu attest. The dish is the single crossover from Kyirisan.
Plenty of his evening menu supports the philosophy; lucky for diners, the intersection is often a happy place. The talker of the bunch are unusual and delicious potato croquettes, fried squiggles of batter that look like funnel cake but taste savory rather than sweet; they’re dusted with a powder made from duck fat and drizzled with black garlic molasses. Shishito peppers take advantage of the pizza oven builders installed before Eaton ditched its original Mediterranean theme. Blistered in the 700-degree heat, they’re fun to eat, not just because you never know which ones are going to be firecrackers, but also due to their drape of anchovy-spiked aioli.
“Carrots are the new beets,” says Ma. He gets diners excited about the trend with a bundle of charred confit baby carrots scattered with sorghum “popcorn.”
American Son’s more mainstream dishes take into account that hotels have to welcome a swath of appetites. Enter beef cheeks on a puddle of creamy grits, garnished with pickled red onions. Butter and vinegar add their gloss and sting to the soft meat, showered in minced chives. Ma also offers a ringer for a Big Mac on his late-night menu. The look-alike is tagged as a “wellness” selection, thanks to a vegan patty and cheese. (So they wouldn’t forget the makeup of the classic while creating their twist, cooks sang the Big Mac jingle.)
Customers have groused to me about the portion sizes, some so restrained I’ve heard of managers suggesting that job candidates order room service wherever they’re staying after dinner interviews. For $24, you might want more than three small scallops. They’re soft and sweet, bedded on spaghetti squash and served with wispy fried Thai basil and a red curry that washes over the tongue like liquid fire. Welcome to the new way of grazing in upscale restaurants. Ma’s “large format” dishes negate the need to stop at All-Purpose Pizzeria or its kind afterward. The shareable main courses include brined and grilled quail (the kick is from Korean chile paste) with an escort of fine-crumbed cornbread, and a creation based on Ma’s passion for Korean barbecue: spaghetti squash bundled into lettuce leaves with racy condiments. Count me a fan.
If there’s a best time of day to get a sense of Ma’s style, the chef will tell you it’s dinner, but I’ve struck silver at brunch and for drinks. Think French toast presented as golden rounds of brioche, crackling with a sugar crust. Picture a cocktail of Japanese whiskey, sherry and apple juice, at once heady and refreshing.
“People are more buttoned-up at lunch,” says Ma of the K Street crowd that’s apparently less interested in being challenged when they know they have to get back to work. But they still like their avocado toast, spread here with avocado puree and crab and enlivened with citrus aioli. The dish shares space on the midday list with a pleasing fried chicken sandwich (but commercial-grade fries) and a kale salad jazzed up with almonds, grapes and quinoa — a Waldorf for the mindful diner.
Pastry chef David Collier’s desserts go with the flow. They’re clean, light and satisfying. One of his newest creations gathers a suggestion of blackout cake, mascarpone panna cotta and espresso ice beneath delicate squares of chocolate tuile. But White Album, a signature from the start that combines some of my favorite flavors and textures, remains best in class. The trick is to maneuver your spoon so that when you dip into the bowl of warm, snow-colored tapioca set off with shards of meringue, you pick up some of the cool, passionfruit-mango ganache hiding below. P.S.: The monochromatic pleasure is gluten-free.
While the kitchen is visible to diners in the rear of the restaurant, I’m happiest sitting up front, where the seating captures views of the central bar — noisemaker that it is — and any action on the street. The tables and chairs around the perimeters are at a height suitable for grade schoolers, but otherwise comfortable.
Ma opens the public letter to his parents, who reside in Centreville, with the words, “I hope I make you proud.” A meal or two at American Son makes me think they must be beaming.