This review appears in The Washington Post’s 2015 Fall Dining Guide.
Frank Ruta is the chef the Capella hotel should have sought out when the boutique property set sail in Georgetown two years ago. But only after the former White House chef was forced to turn off the lights at foodie favorite Palena in Cleveland Park was he available to replace Capella’s opening underachiever. The rest, as they say, is history — and some of the most sophisticated cooking in the region. Admirers of the chef will recognize his signature style on every plate: first-rate ingredients (gently) coaxed into memorable performances. Picture sole from Spain and lobster in a shallow pool of minted cucumber juice. Consider squid ink pasta arranged with rock shrimp and skate wing, with heat from chilies and crunch from lemony toasted breadcrumbs. Palena was famous for its roast chicken; the entree, flavorful from its brine of sweet spices and orange zest, is a star here, too. Ruta’s support group includes a master sommelier, Keith Goldston, and a pastry chef, Aggie Chin, every bit as skilled as the top banana. All this, plus parquet floors, pools of space between broad tables and windows that push open to the C&O Canal.
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This review appeared in The Washington Post Magazine on April 26, 2015.
What a difference a chef makes. And a pastry maven, and a master sommelier.
A year ago, anyone dining in the Grill Room of the chic Capella hotel in Georgetown probably would have pushed away from the table thinking, “nice place — for a hotel restaurant.” While the interior, with its lavender accents and curved leather chairs, made a design statement from Day 1, the menu tended to play it for flyover country. Tuna tartare, in other words, is not a dish that breaks much news anymore. Suckling pig with fig sauce and lime foam revealed a more daring side to opening chef Jakob Esko, but the dish wasn’t enough to earn the restaurant more than two stars.
When Esko returned to Barcelona last summer, Capella put out the word it was looking for a local with a point of view to replace him. “We don’t want to be thought of as a typical hotel restaurant,” general manager Alex Obertop said in June.
It took some time and a restaurant closing to find the right name — six months and the shuttering of Palena in Cleveland Park, to be exact — but the Grill Room now tastes like an entirely new destination with the addition of executive chef Frank Ruta. Along for the joy ride: Aggie Chin, his pastry equal at Palena, and Keith Goldston, who left Range in Friendship Heights to become the wine director for the property.
If you haven’t reserved a table yet, do so, or risk missing the chance to enjoy the work of one of Washington’s most respected chefs in a room with a view (and a name, alas, as uninspired as Madonna’s “Rebel Heart”). Ruta, the recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Mid-Atlantic Best Chef award in 2007 (in a tie with R.J. Cooper), has a fetching advantage in a dining room overlooking the C&O canal.
The delights start with a broad table draped in linen, drinks that also underscore the high price of fashion and a bread basket that dares you to leave a crumb. Depending upon your relationship with carbs, the Grill Room’s warm cornbread, tender biscuits and multigrain slices are either catnip or Kryptonite.
While “it’s easy to do something familiar,” Ruta says he didn’t want to simply replicate his earlier efforts. His latest menu, a changing a la carte selection plus a five-course tasting menu for $135 , will nevertheless be recognizable to his fans. The food waves to Italy and France while incorporating details he attends to himself, including pancetta cured in-house and breads baked on site.
Appetizers are divided between cold and hot. The former tend to be salads of beauty and seasonality, while the latter celebrate a knack for pastas. Veal breast stuffed with liver, heart and pistachios is sliced into rich rounds and arranged on poached wheatberries gilded with almond oil to bring out the salad’s nuttiness. Ravioli are a shade of sunflower yellow; credit for the rich hue goes to goose eggs, which also find their way into the pasta’s scrambled egg filling. Dressing up the bowl are smoked pork belly, spring peas and a foam whipped up from butter and the juices of the meat: “Bacon and eggs!” jests the chef, who once fed occupants of the White House.
Pheasant and foie gras lend their charms to Ruta’s sublime boudin blanc, which gets poached in thyme-infused milk and is shed of its casing before it leaves the kitchen. Like all resourceful cooks, Ruta incorporates leftovers — in this instance, the casing, which he caramelizes, along with vegetables, to create a glaze using verjus, the juice of unripened grapes. The result is a sausage so light it cuts like custard and a sauce that requires another dip into the bread basket.
Dover sole costs $21 — as a first course — although the dish could qualify as an entree. Tucked inside a curl of the luxurious fish is a cake shaped from lobster and cod; circling the delicacy are a champagne sauce and Kumamoto oysters warmed in cream and whispering of lime. The chef has a habit of inserting the tropics into his fish dishes, evinced again in a main course of black sea bass and Gulf shrimp steamed with kaffir lime and finished with a coulis made green and fragrant with more of the herb and ramps.
Ruta does rustic as well as he does refined. To taste his beef oxtails braised with celery, tomatoes and raisins, the heartiest entree on the menu, is to be transported to Rome for Sunday supper.
One of several smooth guides at the Grill Room, Goldston might introduce himself as the resident “cork dork,” but the sommelier is an engaging presenter of labels. Most challenging wine pairing on the menu? The goose egg ravioli, he says, because of the featured ingredient’s sulfurous quality. To the rescue: Vouvray from Domaine Huet, a wine based on chenin blanc that “bonds with sulfur.” Meanwhile, the aforementioned veal breast gets a distinguished match in the 2011 Calera pinot noir Mount Harlan Mills Vineyard. A recent hire, Goldston hopes to grow the one-page list he inherited to some 600 selections this year.
Dessert ought to be mandatory; Chin is one of the region’s finest sweets makers. “Pretty in Pink” pays homage to spring and makes good on its promise, with rhubarb presented multiple ways — candied, roasted, as a sorbet — and tucked among pieces of pistachio cake and yogurt panna cotta. More dramatic is Chin’s ode to chocolate: unusually intense milk chocolate mousse set on a sliver of devil’s food cake and garnished with brown butter ice cream and a thin hoop of Valrhona chocolate. (Soft meringue enlightens the mousse, which sports a sheer chocolate cover.)
Among the mignardises that conclude dinner are very good caramels, fruit gems and cream puffs the size of quarters and the weight of feathers. The kid in me springs for the fortune cookies, slender and delicate versions of the commercial-grade endings to so many Chinese meals in American restaurants. Shaped with tuile batter, the cookies come with tasteful messages inside.
One borrows from George Bernard Shaw. “There is no sincerer love than the love of food,” reads the slip of paper. It’s one of multiple good fortunes not just for the recipient, but for the newly enhanced Grill Room as well.
Location: 1050 31st St. NW. 202-617-2424. www.thegrillroomdc.com.
Open: Breakfast 6:30 to 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $13 to $21, main courses $28 to $38.
Sound check: 69 decibels / Conversation is easy.
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