Sign of the times in Washington: You can bag a “pot brownie” at the Riggsby these days. The dessert offering has less to do with the District’s relaxed attitude toward marijuana than with a pastry chef’s sense of humor.
To be clear, the brownie is trotted out in a cast-iron pot, and served as a sundae. Think about that, then LOL.
The American restaurant’s chef de cuisine is pushing an envelope or two as well, using testa, or head cheese, as a filling for a corn dog and radically rethinking such classic preparations as paella.
Both chefs are relatively new to the Riggsby, the retro American dining room inside the Kimpton Carlyle Hotel in Dupont Circle. They’re part of a recent hiring spree by Boston chef Michael Schlow, whose dining empire has grown to six places in the Washington area . Alex Levin, late of Osteria Morini , was appointed executive pastry chef for the Schlow Restaurant Group in February and oversees the Riggsby’s desserts. In April, Schlow installed Jay Caputo, formerly of Espuma in Rehoboth Beach, Del., as the restaurant’s chef de cuisine.
The chefs’ rewrites make for some interesting meals, some better than others, in a plummy room that has always enjoyed the patina of age. Glittering from the center of a skylight is a weighty chandelier; ringing the room are booths the color of red wine and the size of Mini Coopers. The words “supper” and “club” are implied, a look best captured at the Riggsby’s keyhole-shaped entrance, which frames the handsome bar within. The menu furthers the illusion of having been around for ages with a “Mad Men” lunch special: two courses plus two glasses of wine or two martinis for $35. Reading about it feels slightly naughty. Indulging in it necessitates a nap afterward. (No surprise, hotel guests are the deal’s primary buyers, says Caputo, 44.)
The Riggsby’s dinner menu begins, as so many do, with bar snacks. They are mostly familiar dishes with contemporary touches. The fine crunch in the deviled eggs comes from chicken skin, the gentle heat from Calabrian chiles. Hummus is a surprising green, buttery avocado having been mashed into the expected chickpeas. Instead of pita, the spread, bright with lime and biting with serrano, is scooped up with pieces of soft corn tortilla. Foie gras butter is wasted on the Parker House roll, dull and dry when I sampled it, and truth be told, I would have preferred something sturdier inside my one-bite corn dog than the jellylike testa, improved by a swipe in horseradish sauce.
Before revising the menu, Schlow and Caputo talked about classic dishes they thought didn’t need embellishment and traditions they believed they could tinker with. In the former category are Caesar salad, a textbook version with anchovies and garlic informing the creamy dressing, and lobster fra diavolo, spicy seafood spaghetti. Caputo introduces the morsels of lobster to the steamy house-made pasta at the last moment, a move that results in tender (as opposed to rubbery) seafood. The tomato sauce is racy with red pepper flakes, but not so fiery you can’t enjoy the lobster, and garlicky toasted bread crumbs add just the right punctuation.
Every other restaurant seems to be addressing summer with a variation of gazpacho, and this one is no exception. Unfortunately, gazpacho with a little island of coconut panna cotta is not nearly as compelling as its components suggest. The dark red base is heavy, and the primary seasoning seems to be black pepper (too much of it). The soup smacks more of a condiment than a finished dish, and the white custard, faintly sweet, feels misplaced.
Servers are quick to tell you the paella, described on the menu as “broken,” is unlike any you may have experienced in a Spanish restaurant. While the entree fits in the usual chorizo, chicken and mussels, the saffron rice takes the form of Italian arancini, or fritters. Interesting idea, but I prefer a bed of fluffy-crusty rice. This version makes it a chore to get, in a single forkful, the flavor of the whole.
This son of Minnesota was cheered to see walleye pike, among the prizes of the Great Lakes, on the Riggsby’s new menu. Hoping to summon a backyard barbecue, but conscious of his swank setting, Caputo presents the pan-seared fish with a brushstroke of sweet corn puree (in the role of corn on the cob) and a shattering potato tuile, seasoned with mustard (a stand-in, together with potato confit, for potato salad). Eating the dish places me near the land of 10,000 lakes, at least with my eyes closed.
Schlow’s nostalgia for a youthful memory, prime rib with horseradish, inspires the Riggsby’s hamburger. It’s a stellar if messy stack of dry-aged ground beef — chuck, brisket and short rib — crammed into a toasted milk bun that’s sturdy enough to contain all the juices. Adding to the height and heft are a thatch of fried onions, melted cheddar cheese and a pepper-ignited horseradish sauce whose inclusion of lemon juice mimics the tang of pickles. The sandwich — “definitely not polite,” admits Schlow — is a lot to get your lips around and goes by the same name he is called by his friend Mario Batali: Schlow Burger.
Another sandwich channels a Cuban, except pork is replaced by duck confit between slices of pressed sourdough bread on which melted cheese, crisp pickled zucchini and zucchini jam weigh in with their respectively creamy, tangy and sweet attributes. Like the hamburger, the duck sandwich, a lunch mainstay, arrives with a silver cone of very good french fries.
As lovely as the fruit desserts are, the headiest of sweets is the aforementioned pot brownie, an ode to decadence forged from the obvious (warm) brownie, vanilla gelato, garnishes including chocolate toffee and hazelnut brittle and lashings of chocolate sauce.
“There’s a surprise inside,” teased one of my servers. Pause. “Hazelnut ganache.”
The only buzz you’ll get from the confection is a sugar rush. But dude, it’s good stuff.
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1731 New Hampshire Ave. NW.
Open: Breakfast, lunch, dinner daily.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $11 to $17, main courses $17 to $41.
Sound check: 80 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.