Beds and ballrooms aren’t the only ways hotels can distinguish themselves from one another. Restaurants have the power to attract attention and add luster to a property, too. Here are the strategies deployed by two well-known brands in Washington.
It’s been five years since Eric Ziebold served his last tasting menu at CityZen, the top-drawer restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental in Southwest Washington. That’s a long time for 3,211 square feet to go unused except for private functions. The successor opened in November and goes by a name that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue: Amity & Commerce. For those who aren’t historians, it’s a reference to the 1778 treaty between the United States and France, recognizing the former as an independent country and encouraging trade between the two nations.
If the connection isn’t clear, Thomas Jefferson later became the chief of mission for France, and the Jefferson Memorial is more or less a neighbor to the hotel. Voila!
Patrons of CityZen will recognize the look. The cathedral-high ceiling, gleaming wood floor, illuminated bar and exhibition kitchen remain, but they’ve been joined by some communal tables and other informal touches. The menu better reflects the change in concepts and the reality that Amity & Commerce is an amenity for people who bought beds upstairs. Some guests might be looking for nothing fancier than a hamburger. Others might desire a splurge, hence duck liver parfait. Chef Justin Houghtaling was tasked with overseeing breakfast, lunch and dinner in the American bistro, and he brings with him a skill set honed at Brasserie Beck and Bourbon Steak, among other District establishments.
A placard on the table announces the daily special (“the plat du jour of the day,” a server with a flair for redundancy once introduced it). Give the dish some thought, because the chef surely has. My inaugural visit gave me hope for the place when on a Friday night I sliced into sweet seared diver scallops arranged with a taste of the tropics: shards of crispy rice, tufts of coconut foam and a jolt of passionfruit vinaigrette. Other daily specials proved just as appealing. Tuesday, for example, is better for a “lasagna” of sliced vegetables and thin crepes layered with creamy ricotta and tomato ragu. The meatless dish, served in a Le Creuset casserole and carpeted with herbed bread crumbs, is an eyepopper you don’t expect to demolish, but do.
Much of the rest of the menu reads as if it were conceived by committee. I can just imagine an executive putting in a pitch for the charcuterie board, filet mignon and grilled salmon. Here and there, however, are a few Mid-Atlantic talking points and signs of a gastronaut trying to assert himself. I’m thinking now of a lunchtime pleasure, a trio of gougeres split and stuffed with shaved country ham and pimento cheese, an indoor picnic that would look at home in the pages of Garden & Gun. The creamy crab cake is as much bun as seafood and could use more fennel slaw (and more tarragon in the aioli) for contrast.
At dinner, short ribs show up on ratatouille and a ring of designer grits. The beef is said to be “tamarind glazed,” a promise that’s delectable when it’s detected. Consistency is an issue here. Chicken splayed on a risotto made hearty with sautéed mushrooms would be improved by more of the advertised lemon-sherry jus. And so it goes. A yawn of a steak frites might be joined on the table by a $9 side of eggplant caponata, fired up with harissa and satisfying enough to qualify as a meal. That said, Amity & Commerce is the uncommon restaurant where entrees tend to outperform appetizers.
Something sweet, perhaps? You’ll be glad to experience the strawberry yogurt cheesecake and surprised that the Hostess-sweet carrot cake with a shocking green base (from green cocoa butter spray) came from the same pastry kitchen.
Within strolling distance of the Mandarin Oriental, notably at the Wharf, are plenty of opportunities for guests to dine off property. With more attention, Amity & Commerce would be in a better position to keep those appetites from straying.
Are two heads better than one? Bryan Voltaggio seems to think so. Together with his brother and fellow chef, Michael, with whom he competed on the sixth season of “Top Chef” and later opened Voltaggio Brothers Steakhouse at MGM National Harbor, the Maryland native is cooking up a seafood storm at the mod Conrad hotel in Washington. It’s called Estuary, and it’s designed as an homage to the Chesapeake Bay.
One of the brothers’ more playful collaborations is the simply billed fish sticks. Puffer fish, also known as sugar toads, were Bryan’s idea; ripe banana in the accompanying tartar sauce was Michael’s notion. They both agreed that marinating the little torpedo shapes in tamari and mirin and flash-frying the appetizer produced “a full thought,” as Bryan puts it. “We are our best editors. Siblings are honest with feedback.” The result? “We get to the end of the line faster.” All I know is that their meaty bronze fish sticks, which come with instruction to eat around the center “bone” (cartilage), are nothing like the Friday staple of my elementary school cafeteria years.
While not without some choppy patches, Estuary, awash in oyster colors, makes it easy to hang out on the water. Bryan says the crab roll is the most photographed dish on the menu, and it’s easy to see why. Seafood stuffed into toasted brioche and garnished with plantain chips in the shape and flavor of crabs is both adorable and appetizing. Temperature and texture play tag in several successful dishes, including a first course of hot scallops sharing a little plank with cool spoonfuls of roasted squash puree beneath lacy sails of bread. Pickled onion and yuzu peel ramp up the eating. Blackened monkfish is dark and delicious, boldly seasoned but not so aggressive that you can’t appreciate the fish, presented with salsify two ways: fried into wavy strips and cooked till tender and splashed with lemony brown butter.
Here and there, little tweaks — more “full thoughts” — would make for better memories. Griddled flounder paved with thin tiles of cured tuna loin and displayed next to a garland of julienned green melon could easily lose its shy, what’s-the-point benne seed cream. Oysters on the half shell are neatly shucked but void of ocean flavor. Think of the mignonette as a life ring.
A strategically placed communal table and a stage set of an open kitchen translate to a cooking show for diners. Seemingly always front and center is chef de cuisine Dan Kennedy, formerly of Volt, Bryan Voltaggio’s fine-dining venue in Frederick, Md. Diners are greeted with crisp grissini and liquid pimento cheese, a cultured version of the cheese and crackers of the Voltaggio brothers’ youth. (“Breadsticksandpimentocheesebonappetit!” gushed a server one night.) Less fun is the amuse-bouche that comes afterward, which often does the opposite of what’s intended. A flat pear-champagne sorbet, among others, does nothing to arouse the palate.
No surprise, perhaps, that seafood tends to be your BFF. Estuary is not the place to shell out $62 for steak, especially meat as lackluster as the restaurant’s supposedly aged rib-eye. An exception is steak “tarte” tar: minced hanger steak cleverly framed in a single crisp onion ring and finished with a creamy cloud of aerated caramelized onion and snowflakes of dehydrated Gruyere. Instead of bread, the restaurant offers a bouquet of endive spears as a delivery vehicle.
Estuary serves Brussels sprouts because doesn’t everybody? The kitchen shakes up the routine by cushioning the vegetable on burrata, sharpening the little green balls with a fish sauce vinaigrette and garnishing the bowl with airy-crisp fried pork skins. So many pies appear in the nearby lounge, Estuary could be mistaken for a pizzeria. From the fiery oven comes a respectable margherita with welcome char and tangy tomato sauce but insufficiently melted mozzarella.
Service is all over the map. I’ve had too much and too little, sometimes at the same meal. Even with a reservation, there can be long delays in getting seated, and Estuary’s leather place mats attract crumbs and food debris, prompting servers to spend long minutes with your party as they try to remove every speck. Loud at prime time, the third-floor dining room is packaged in floor-to-ceiling windows that pull in streams of light by day and capture a drone’s-eye view of CityCenter.
A pretty picture is a given here. A meal to remember? More brotherly attention would help.
Amity & Commerce (Good) 1330 Maryland Ave. SW.
202-554-8588. mandarinoriental.com. Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Prices: Dinner appetizers $12 to $28 (cheese platter), entrees $16 to $64. Sound check: 73 decibels / Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Entrance and dining room are easy to navigate; restrooms, located off the lobby, include spacious, wheelchair-friendly stalls.
Estuary (Good) 950 New York Ave. NW. 202-844-5895. estuarydc.com. Open: Breakfast or brunch daily, lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily. Prices: Dinner appetizers $11 to $22, entrees $26 to $62. Sound check: 75 decibels / Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: An elevator takes guests to the third floor, where the restrooms are wheelchair-friendly.