One of the best pieces of advice I ever got concerning my chosen profession was to “look left when everyone else is looking right,” which is another way of saying “don’t follow the herd” in pursuit of stories. While I applaud the idea, and aim to adhere to it, the reality is, some dining zones are more equal than others some seasons.
Shaw is still packing them in, for instance. Same for 14th Street NW, where midweek, even the middling restaurants are busy. And I wouldn’t be doing my job if I failed to keep readers abreast of the evolving restaurant scene in the District Wharf in Southwest, home to such promising developments as Del Mar, Kith and Kin, and Requin.
Which brings me to Siren by Robert Wiedmaier in the Darcy hotel. Introduced to Scott Circle in April, it’s the namesake chef’s first new Washington restaurant in a decade, and it specializes in seafood from around the world. I previewed the place more or less favorably in May, then kind of forgot about it, as a school of bigger fish caught (and never released) my attention.
Here’s what happened in the meantime: The food got better. So did the service: No more stories about chefs wanting to take you on journeys. The owners of the hotel, San Francisco-based KHP Capital Partners, which built the dining room with Wiedmaier’s wishes in mind, dressed the restaurant with the kind of well-spaced seating most people told the chef they preferred: fewer tables than booths, including alcoves along a wall that are set off with brass screens and velvet curtains for extra privacy. All of you who’ve been asking for relatively quiet places to eat? Put Siren on your easy listening list, save perhaps for weekends, when live piano and bass music season the night.
The real draw, for food enthusiasts, is executive chef John Critchley, a regular presence behind Siren’s raw bar, where Osetra caviar tempts alongside lesser indulgences including oysters and prawns. You may remember Critchley, 40, from his time at Brine in Fairfax, where the focus was local and sustainable (picture croaker and perch) or Bourbon Steak in Georgetown, a notch in the belt of every chef who has grilled there. Wiedmaier has positioned Siren as more sophisticated than his Brasserie Beck downtown and less costly than his esteemed Marcel’s in the West End. The result, produced with the help of business partner and fellow chef Brian McBride, is a restaurant that allows Critchley the freedom to have some fun while casting a wide net.
“Raw to slightly cooked” leads a list of first courses, all culled from the water. Citrus-cured salmon belly is the most theatrical, revealed at the table from beneath a glass cloche filled with apple wood smoke. The cloud dissipates to reveal shimmering ribbons of smoked salmon dappled with chopped cooked egg, pickled blueberries and crisp wafers of salmon skin. Throw in some buttered toast points, and you’ve got breakfast for dinner. A collection of dishes under the “Warm and Crispy” label include a fine herbed crab cake flanked by creamy celery root rémoulade and a golden tumbleweed of fried potato.
While fish makes a fine first impression, several seasonal gems among “vegetables and grains” provide keen competition. Critchley was a pastry chef — first at Trellis in Williamsburg, Va., and later at Clio in Boston — earlier in his career, which explains his savory twists on traditionally sweet notions. The most fanciful is a delicate pastry tart whose filling is parsnip crème and whose top is decorated with sliced pears and undulating ribbons of parsnip. Circling the centerpiece are pear butter and toasted hazelnuts. Your eyes prepare you for dessert, but your tongue registers otherwise. Another mind game is kuri squash custard (a winter variety the color and shape of a pumpkin) served as if it were crème brûlée, with a glassy surface, but shot through with fish sauce and
lemon oil. On the rim of the
plate is a feathery stripe of fried maitake mushrooms and minced country ham, shocked with vinegar. The bold flourish heightens the pleasure of the autumnal custard.
Behind some understated descriptions are some select pleasures. Take the pristine “Fisherman’s Stew,” a muster of crisp sea bass, sweet scallops, tender clams and seafood dumplings — every element tasting as if it were cooked to order — in a pool of lobster fumet garnished with what looks like black lace. No mere garnish, the “brittle,” coaxed from a crepe-like batter darkened with squid ink and edgy with nori, is meant to melt into the saffron-colored broth and add umami to the dish.
The kitchen offers simply grilled whole fish — Dover sole, sea bream — but grilled whole fish is plentiful around town. Siren encourages diners to be more adventurous.
Don’t settle on dinner until after you’ve heard your server describe the specials, invariably ideas Critchley is auditioning for standing engagements. Indeed, a lingering memory after several meals at Siren remains off-the-menu briny belon oysters and smoked royal bass, warmed in a bath of lemon grass cream with nubbins of lamb bacon. Just as easy to enjoy: octopus braised in vinegar and served as a torchon with tender potato coins in a brilliant pool of passion fruit juice and aji amarillo, the yellow Peruvian chiles. A reminder the chef knows meat as well as seafood is cannelloni stuffed with lamb neck, one of the tastier parts of the animal, and presented as two little bundles in a lick of lamb jus, hinting of licorice and flecked with earthy black truffles.
Speaking of lamb, the ingredient reappears as one of a handful of main courses that look to the land instead of the sea. Blushing slices of lamb saddle leaning against a pillowy square of dirty rice with pickled okra is also a delicious nod to the South. The jasmine rice, veined with chicken livers and smoked lamb heart, is a rich touch.
When the world seafood tour disappoints, as with grill-striped swordfish in a vague broth meant to show off Morocco, the issues seem easily fixable. My earlier quibbles with over-salting and excessive accessories are now faint memories.
With the chef’s past in mind, get dessert, and make it the elegant panna cotta, tangy with goat cheese and flattered by sugar-crusted brioche topped with a scoop of Concord grape sorbet. It looks like art and tastes sublime.
Named for the mythological sea creatures who lured sailors to their doom, Siren has an indigo interior, outfitted with black columns and lit as if for gambling rather than dining, that is a little dark for my taste. Which is not to say there aren’t points of interest, in the form of mermaid shapes, a lively bar and wood millwork, just that you might have to squint to appreciate them. The little porthole-shaped object on every table turns out to be a cruet of olive oil, which is poured over a whip of poached tuna fish belly, a gratis course from the kitchen that follows your appetizer and is scooped up with slices of warm flatbread: “Tuna ganoush,” explains a server, who later drops off mignardises (macarons and other tiny sweets), with the bill.
Swarms of new restaurants are competing for your appetites right now. Siren, removed from any dining mecca but the product of tried-and-true talent, deserves the look I was telling you about.
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1515 Rhode Island Ave. NW.
Open: Dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers $12 to $125 (caviar service), main courses $32 to $58.
Sound check: 70 decibels / Conversation is easy.