If there’s any doubt that the haute Southern restaurant Vidalia is history and a new crew has taken over, a portrait near the entrance drives the point home. Framed for all to see is a heavily inked chef, new owner Hamilton Johnson, hoisting a 35-pound pig on his shoulder.
A few steps into the bar puts even more distance between then and now. The curved ceiling, painted with what appear to be alien faces or copies of “The Scream,” pays tribute to the chef’s 200 or so tattoos. Elsewhere are shout-outs to his music tastes, portraits of David Bowie and Lou Reed included, and signs of farmhouse chic (old tables, potted herbs). The message, in other words, is unclear.
Johnson is returning to familiar territory. The South Carolina native, 35, spent seven years at Vidalia, five of them as chef de cuisine, before striking out to plot his own restaurant. In a nostalgic handoff in December, he acquired the subterranean space from his former employer, veteran Washington restaurateur Jeff Buben, and promptly put his own stamp on the location, now known as Honeysuckle.
The name sounds as steeped in the South as biscuits and bourbon. While you can still expect a great bread basket (a la Vidalia), and meaty cracklings sound off in a few dishes, Johnson weaves into his repertoire ingredients and techniques he grew to appreciate on visits to Iceland and Finland. The orange puddles of sauce affixing cubes of hamachi to their plate? They’re flavored with sea buckthorn, a cold-climate plant whose bright berries deliver welcome tartness. The creme fraiche that graces dessert? It relies on skyr, Iceland’s creamy answer to yogurt. Duck breast seasoned with caraway illustrates another nod to the Nordic.
What many dishes share is an unabashed richness, a reliance on butter and cream that borders on overkill and seems out of step with the way a lot of us prefer to eat right now. Don’t get me wrong. I adore sweetbreads and pastry, black truffles and Hollandaise as much as the next food enthusiast. But introducing all those ingredients to one another in the same dish, as Johnson does in a fancy first course, creates an endurance contest for its recipient. Rich organ meat draped in an emulsion of butter and egg yolk, set in a buttery crust and finished with fungus needs something to break up the party. A splash of acid, maybe? As is, I want to raise a white flag after two bites. The aforementioned duck comes with cubes of pickled squash — so far, so good — but also cabbage filled with whipped creme fraiche and a flourish of foie gras jus. I don’t think it’s the chef’s intention to have his guests cry “Uncle!” after a single dish, but some of us do.
Johnson doesn’t gild the lily; he smothers it. Even his amuse-bouche, traditionally a light bite meant to stimulate the palate, can feel like a mini-meal. Looking for something to lighten a rib-eye topped with buttered crab, we ordered a side dish of kale. But it’s as much cream as green and weighted with smoked ham hocks. So much for vegetables as balancing acts.
A word about hospitality, in part because you might need a break about now: Is anyone else tired of servers who don’t let you even taste your food before asking how you like it? Or worse, who presuppose you’re enjoying it? Or, also bad, who interrupt seemingly every other bite to check in? One waiter at Honeysuckle managed to commit all three sins in the span of three courses one night. “Is everything excellent?” he asked at one point. “Go away!” my party cried, if only in their heads. The hosts have a better handle on service, but their intrusive colleague is what you remember.
Lest you think I’m sour on the place, let me be clear: Johnson can cook. His food at Vidalia was some of the best in the restaurant’s 23 years, and enough flashes of that talent alight at Honeysuckle.
The place makes a nice impression, first with a linen napkin folded to look like a tuxedo shirt, then with a woven black basket filled with banana bread, beer bread and butter flake rolls flecked with bits of ham hock and cheddar cheese. (Butters and fruit spreads change from day to day.) Diced raw lamb bound with smoked mayonnaise is a pleasing tartare. Circled by shimmering green dots of nasturtium oil, the first course is pretty, too. Gingerbread crumbs spice up a salad of endive (as freckled as Prince Harry) and warm croquettes that bleed brie when sliced. In the mix are juicy grapefruit segments — the sort of spark plugs more of this food could use.
Fish tastes like the menu’s strong suit right now. One night, I’m cheering the kitchen for its slow-roasted hake, snappy with chicken cracklings, shimmering with smoked roe and resting on a subtle malted velouté. And more than once, skate wing has been met with murmurs of appreciation. The entree is served in an arch on its plate, with tender little shrimp, soft pearl onions and fresh dill on top. Just before you dig in, a classic French sauce cardinale, whipped up with bechamel, lobster glace and truffle butter, is poured over the fish. Yeah, it’s rich, but it’s also a keeper.
Relative relief from excess can be found at the bar, with a short menu of small plates that turn out to be my favorite things at Honeysuckle. Twice-fried, peanut-strewn, sweet and sour chicken wings are worth the oily fingers they create; fear not, hot towels replace clean bones. Rye bread slathered with gribiche (mayo, chopped egg and pickles) and heaped with shaved tongue tastes like a wonderful upgrade from a childhood favorite, chipped beef on toast. Shrimp bound in mayonnaise and eaten on house-made crackers with pepper jelly, a foil to the white seafood salad, make our bellies glad to be at the bar, too. And if two of you want to split a burger with dry-aged beef and onion jam, the kitchen obliges with perfect halves — each with their own whole runny egg, thank you very much.
While none of the snacks qualify as light, they have the advantage of being a few bites as opposed to gut-busters. On the other side of the counter are a big video screen projecting lulling images of water (falls, waves, beaches) and bartenders whipping up mulled wine cocktails and a mysterious drink that’s dark as tar and goes down like liquid licorice. Ask for the potent Black Sabbath.
Save space, if you can, for dessert. Pastry chef T.C. Lumbar shows chocolate fans some love with a pleasing plate of cocoa tuiles, chocolate sorbet and various “textures,” finished with (wait, wait, don’t tell me!) a drizzle of olive oil at the table. Lumbar also makes a seductive butterscotch panna cotta, tricked out with rummy raisins and crisp toffee meringue. An upended buckwheat waffle striped with chocolate sauce and flanked with brown butter ice cream proves simple and sweet.
Honeysuckle is definitely filling. It should strive to be more fulfilling. I know it’s within the chef’s grasp.
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1990 M St. NW.
Open: Dinner daily.
Prices: Appetizers $14 to $21, entrees $29 to $42.
Sound check: 69 decibels / Conversation is easy.