Every now and then I encounter a restaurant that’s so dismissive of diners’ senses, my initial reaction is simply not to write about it. Why waste the money, the words and your precious time? But the bigger and pricier a place, the more I feel the need to warn readers away from, among other dining pratfalls, kitchens that can’t cook and design that makes you dizzy.
Take La Vie, which opened in July on the popular Wharf with a Mediterranean menu, no dedicated chef and a series of rooms that co-owner Mike Bramson says were created to keep customers in for the night (presumably to keep spending money).
Arrivals can take their pick of a white main dining room, someone’s idea of a classy-with-a-k interior made possible with red banquettes, purple rugs and truckloads of concrete; an oh-so-green Conservatory set apart by overhead beams draped with faux vines and a bar backed with “portholes” offering an underwater view of the rooftop swimming pool; a Chandelier Room set off with the obvious illumination, just waiting for “The Real Housewives of Potomac” to alight; and the Ledge, a comparatively modest terrace with a bar and views that look onto boat slips and beyond.
Combine Las Vegas with a Carnival cruise, and you have an idea of what to expect.
I approached La Vie (French for “life”), the latest from the Social Restaurant Group, as I do all my subjects, hoping for the best. I left, three meals later, concluding that diners are paying for the view, restaurants need a captain in the kitchen, and the nearby Mi Vida, Kaliwa and Del Mar make good escapes. Here’s my punch list of problems for the restaurant to fix.
Lack of common sense. One visit, after everyone had placed their orders, a server asked, in all seriousness, “You’d like the appetizers first? And then the entrees? How about the sides?” I know the T-shirts say “Life is short; eat dessert first,” but does anyone want their steak ahead of their salad, or their sides anywhere
but ... on the side (of the main course)?
Also, servers should never interrupt guests who are clearly in conversation to ask if everything is okay. The better tack: They should do a walk-by to “read” the table, using facial expressions and other cues to determine guest satisfaction.
If they see something, they should say something. Most diners aren’t going to leave $15 cocktails or $46 entrees unfinished unless there’s something wrong with them. What’s more, simply because drinks are made “with lots of ingredients,” as one bartender informed us, doesn’t make them better. A blend of bourbon, balsamic reduction, strawberry and more resembles a watery Manhattan.
A five-bottle wine list. “We’re working on it,” a server told me when I asked if there was more than the handful of selections — none less than $80.
Ceviche in name only. Typically, the dish involves raw fish or seafood “cooked” in some kind of citrus. Dry and crumbly, the halibut flecked with minced yellow peppers at La Vie seems to be auditioning for the role of a space meal. (Just add water.)
Messed-up basics. Think all Caesar salads and broiled oysters taste alike? Then you haven’t tried the overdressed romaine, garnished with industrial grated cheese and powdery “rustic” croutons, or the bivalves smothered by creamed spinach, artichoke and salty feta cheese at La Vie. Poor lettuce. Poor oysters. They never had a chance. Meanwhile, the cheddar on my hamburger appeared to have been applied straight from the fridge. Unmelted, the cheese was stiff, cool to the touch.
Plastic straws. A woke restaurant offers paper or reusable metal ones.
Food that doesn’t look like itself. A confident kitchen knows to edit its efforts. Less is usually more. I was reminded of these fine points when a whole branzino was set down, split and overdressed with a kitchen sink of garnishes, including clams, tomatoes and artichokes. The entree’s recipient didn’t know where to fix her fork. “Very distracting,” she said, poking into the heap.
Cooks apparently not tasting their work. Was the pale green puree under the vapid zucchini tortellini meant to taste like nothing? Did someone forget to jump-start the aioli beneath the blank seafood misto with the promised lemon? Risotto can be loose or firm, but dense and sludgy — La Vie’s version — is never appropriate. While the roast chicken certainly looked the part, and pickled mushrooms sound like an interesting foil, the entree and its accompaniments (fingerling potatoes and cauliflower florets) tasted as if a cup of hot oil had been poured over them.
Sorry final impressions. A restaurant should make the dessert course worth lingering over. Coconut sorbet should not smack of frozen candle wax. Crepes should not remind you of leather. Once the province of fine dining, molten chocolate cake is now so commonplace, the confection appears on the menu at fast-casual Denny’s — which (for real!) makes a superior version.
La Vie is not a total Titanic. Shrimp piggybacking on crab cakes, three to a barge, might be awkward to eat, but at least they bear a resemblance to seafood. If you can overlook their $42 price tag, lamb chops are apt to be cooked the shade you want and arrive with an inoffensive, green-with-herbs couscous. While a server basically described the warm chocolate cake in terms of the second coming, it has, well, heat and chocolate going for it. As for seating, the Conservatory is an entertaining place to find yourself while you push food around on your plate; after 2 a.m., confides a bartender, the clothes tend to come off the condo dwellers who have the run of the aforementioned pool.
Sadly, the vista capturing the Potomac comes at a steep price. And you’d better have something in the fridge at home, because the likelihood of your joining the Clean Plate Club here is as good as Omarosa Manigault Newman getting invited to a Christmas party at the White House.
La Vie? Pardon my French, but non merci.
88 District Sq. SW (fifth floor).
Open: Dinner daily.
Prices: Appetizers $11 to $115 (seafood tower), main courses $22 to $46.
Sound check: 76 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.