It’s been a while since I last experienced the Hamilton, now in its seventh year. How is it faring, and why are so many of its 500 seats spoken for, even midweek? Eager to get off the merry-go-round of what’s new, if only for one column, I booked a bunch of dates with the 37,000-square-foot restaurant, which shares quarters with the underground Hamilton Live, a concert venue with its own kitchen and menu.
A chip off the old block, the Hamilton brims with Clyde’s DNA. The bar and other rooms are baronial, with soaring ceilings and acres of dark wood. If the glossy framed photos of Washington sites in the bar look as if Hallmark had a hand in their creation, other design details make you wish competitors followed suit. Consider the “snug” tables hugging the window in the front dining room. Just as advertised, they’re cozy booths with the bonus of small, see-through doors, allowing lucky inhabitants privacy along with the ability to take in the scene.
Then there are the tables themselves, covered with linen, set with another infrequent sight — salt and pepper shakers — and four kinds of sweetener. Some spots come with lamps, the better to read menus. Let there be light, right? By the time your choice of gratis water is dropped off (in a help-yourself bottle) and a basket of warm bread makes itself known, you’re poised to start a Hamilton fan club.
The menu reads like a list drawn up by a census taker, or at least someone who can measure cradle-to-senior eating habits. Count on salads that blow kisses to the season, appetizers that reflect the mass appeal of falafel and sushi, sandwiches that pack in all manner of surf and turf, steaks to pull in carnivores and (housemade) pasta for the noodle crowd. Cheese plates? Check. Poke? It’s 2018. No wonder executive chef Zach Smith, whose résumé includes the fine-dining Volt in Frederick, Md., stocks his kitchen with 100 workers. He needs every sous-chef, line cook and dishwasher he can wrangle.
The caveat? Not every dish is going to make you wanna shout, and some categories — sushi, for instance — are not the reason to come here, particularly if your bar for raw fish and vinegared rice is Sushi Taro, Sushi Gakyu or another of the city’s benchmarks. But there’s enough in the mix at the Hamilton to appease your inner gastronaut, and the price is invariably right. Seven dollars for a cup of peppery lentil soup, thick with threads of lamb and colorful with carrots, fuses value and comfort. Herbed falafel, the creation of a Moroccan sous-chef and as good as those at Zaytinya? I’m on them like Trump on Putin.
Shaved raw Brussels sprouts are a good break from fried. The Hamilton molds the leaves into a pretty round that’s bright with cranberries, crisp with pine nuts and sassy with a mustard vinaigrette. A finish of grated pecorino is icing on this (savory) cake.
Pastas come in two sizes. You’ll want to upgrade in the case of the rib-sticking mushroom stroganoff, staged with creme fraiche, ruffled noodles, a dusting of Parmesan and seasonal fungi. Take it from a witness; once the lot is tasted, the pasta incites a tug-of-war among dining companions. Bucatini stained black with squid ink, arranged with sweet clams and enough slivered garlic to kill off half the characters in an Anne Rice novel, is almost as much a prize.
Of the meat entrees, rib-eye is nice, but veal ribs, capped with herbed butter and best eaten pink, are better. The Hamilton’s thick-but-lean pork chop reminds me that fat equals flavor. Thank goodness the plate includes a choice of sauce, because this one needs a boost. The entrees also come with two sides. Make one of them whipped, skin-on Yukon Gold potatoes.
Surprising letdowns temper my feelings for the Hamilton. Love the crisp falafel, but the soupy hummus and soupier baba ghanoush on the mezze platter make poor representatives for the Middle East. I’d like to see Smith tackle the Hamilton Burger without getting egg on his face, and I mean that literally. The construction comes with crisp bacon and a runny egg that forms a yellow moat around the sandwich the moment I try to cut it in half. Sog ensues, and when I try to add a tomato slice, it slips off the surface when I bite down. Messy, yes, but the patty is also bland. And why is my burger more gray than pink when I requested medium-rare? I have a beef with the meatloaf, too. Where’s the moisture and the seasoning? Desserts, the last chance a restaurant has to make an impression, resemble banquet confections. The best part of the dense peanut butter cheesecake is its garnish of roasted peanuts, while the individual apple pie takes a back seat to its vanilla ice cream.
Just when I question whether I can vouch for the Hamilton, along comes a creamy, celery-laced clam chowder or an apple-packed fall market salad that goes down like a stroll through an orchard. To know the kitchen’s strengths is to embrace the place. Jumbo lump crab cakes sport a nice crust and arrive with a catcher’s mitt of golden french fries and sweetly fresh coleslaw whose only flaw is its portion size. More would be better.
The restaurant group’s thorough, two-week training results in service with a smile, food that comes out in timely fashion and dishes that always hit their marks. Well, most of the time. The bartender who messed up my order on visit No. 4 was an exception. Maybe she was trying to save me from the leaden fried soft-shell-crab-sweet-potato roll, an appetizer that made its way to me only after I was halfway through my main course. (According to general manager John Grace, sushi and rolls are a way for the Hamilton to distinguish itself from the nearby Old Ebbitt Grill and its popular raw bar.)
Dread din? The quietest part of the complex, a onetime Borders bookstore, is the bird-themed Arboretum, waaaaay in the nether reaches of the Hamilton. Passing throngs of diners and multiple bars to reach it one night, I half-considered leaving bread crumbs for some stragglers in my party. En route to our table, a pal cracked, “Can we take a break?”
Big is one way to look at the behemoth. So is one-size-fits-all. Sometimes, that’s just what you need, and for those occasions, the Hamilton stands ready to assist.
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Open: Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday. Prices: Dinner appetizers $5 to $16, sandwiches and main courses $11 to $46. Sound check: 81 decibels / Extremely loud.