The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide.
Admirers rave about the Saturday-only dim-sum service, but have you grazed it lately? Rubbery shrimp shumai and greasy chive dumplings made me want to cancel my fan club membership in the pan-Asian retreat, but I regained my faith after the arrival of a little plate of hot and numbing beef ribs showed up. Served with ribbons of cool cucumber, the thin slices of fiery meat sealed the deal ($40 for five snacks). Time has taught me that weekday lunch is actually the best time to sample the cooking of chef Scott Drewno. That’s where you’ll find me in the sleek, window-wrapped downstairs lounge, putting serious dents in duck buns served alongside smoky lo mein and lobster spring rolls cinched with chive ties — as pretty as they are pleasing.
2 1/2 stars
The Source: 575 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-637-6100. wolfgangpuck.com .
Sound check: 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following review was originally published Nov. 18, 2015.
The Source review: Renovations brighten the room — and the menu
Eight years is epic in the restaurant business. But worn banquettes and faded wallpaper weren’t the only reasons the Source by Wolfgang Puck went dark for several weeks of renovations in August.
With one eye on the heightened competition and another on his loyal clientele, chef Scott Drewno knew he had to refresh the menu of the modern Chinese restaurant next to the Newseum if he wanted to stay relevant in the age of Momofuku, the Dabney and the scores of other newcomers generating buzz and lines in Washington this year. And it didn’t hurt to change things up for the kitchen team, either, since members could probably execute suckling pig with black plum puree in their sleep.
Revealed in September, the alterations are, for the most part, flattering. The ground-floor lounge and the dining room upstairs look like younger versions of themselves. (Dig the pop of color from the orange leather bar stools.) Food-wise, Drewno says he has changed about 75 percent of his menu, leaving just a few links to the past. Longtime fans will no doubt be pleased to see that the miniature spicy tuna cones survived the cut. As much as some of us looked forward to the welcome of candied walnuts and stir-fried green beans at dinner, their replacement is an enhancement: pull-apart scallion rolls seasoned with pulverized shiitake mushrooms — Parker House rolls if China had baked them.
Through good seasons and lesser ones here, the constants have been dumplings. Wisely, Drewno has expanded his repertoire to include more dumplings and more occasions to explore them. Monday is Dumpling Day in the lounge, which offers 10 varieties for $5 a plate, including two — hearty smoked brisket and “hot and numbing” ground pork that lives up to the description — that are new to the mix. No matter the day, the regular menu offers a selection of four dim sum dishes as a dinner appetizer, the prettiest of which is the lobster spring roll, its top tied with a chive frond and its bottom affixed to the plate with chili sauce. Sharing the stage are scallop siu mai capped with slices of red chili, robust pork potstickers and more routine chicken dumplings.
The lone salad looks impressive, a mound of kale and other ruffled greens tossed with slivers of pear and framed with marinated cucumbers and pickled radishes. But the sesame-garlic dressing is applied with such restraint, some mouthfuls taste like a pasture.
Restaurants with fine-dining aspirations tend to promote interaction with their patrons — notice how many places are tossing salads and carving meat at the table? — and the revised Source is no exception. Book the four-seat hot pot table, and Drewno himself drops by during the feast, a work-in-progress when I tried it in late September. The multiple courses — beef short ribs, pork shoulder, shrimp, cod and even egg — would have benefited from more coaching by the servers as to cooking time (and, um, just whose job is it to turn down the heat?). Still, the evening resulted in some of the best leftovers of 2015: containers of a broth that had gotten richer with the introduction of each course to a large pot in the center of the table.
Flourishes appear on the standing menu, too. Wonton soup costs $16, which might result in a U-turn at your neighborhood Chinese hangout but feels less excessive here, where the liquid attraction, plenty for two, arrives on a rolling cart in a handsome, globe-shaped pot. No ordinary broth, Drewno’s elixir swells with the flavor of three stocks — chicken, pork and beef — to which ginger, chili peppers and garlic are added. Bobbing in the pot are pickled serrano peppers, an egg poached in tea and delicate pork-and-shrimp dumplings. If the One Percent is looking for a cold remedy, this is it (and how!).
Pre-makeover, the Source featured roasted half-duck with lo mein noodles. Since September, a compelling reason to reserve a table has been whole roasted duck for two, a $74 proposition that makes sense given the attention lavished on the signature, a story that unfolds in three courses. Part one introduces slices of succulent breast meat, along with pillowy steamed buns and accents including Chinese mustard and 10-spice salt, for bundling into sandwiches. Duck legs and thighs, stir-fried in a chili-black bean sauce, follow. Finally, a bowl of fragrant duck broth arrives, with water spinach and a duck wonton floating within.
Blue crab fried rice is good enough, and rich enough, to qualify as a main course. Drewno uses the glistening grains, mixed with minced sweet carrots and lacy scrambled egg, as an escort for one of the best fish dishes around, cod poached in chili oil and garnished with a crumble of red chilies, garlic and dried black beans minced to a near-powder, a condiment the kitchen refers to as “Chinese gremolata.” Steamed salmon, in contrast, is most interesting for its crisp accessories of water chestnuts and lotus root. A more successful pairing is thick slices of pork belly — succulent meat edged with shattering skin — and steamed littleneck clams, the shells of which cup bits of smoky Chinese bacon along with garlicky oyster sauce.
“Hot & numbing” fried quail is, as promised, equal parts pleasure and pain, seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns and dried red chilies. Companions of roasted fingerling potatoes and stir-fried cilantro create sparks of their own. The combination makes a diner eager for the next bite and intent on the one after it.
The Source lets you drink as well as you eat, thanks to a sommelier who manages to find just the right wine to bridge a party’s diverse orders and a bar that comes up with such libations as Bullet to the Head: Bulleit Rye, chartreuse and lime offered in what feels like a glass ball. The handful of desserts, on the other hand, break no new ground.
The most exclusive chef’s “table” in town is now a counter at the end of the bar, where, Tuesday through Saturday, just two revelers eat 16 courses for $95 a head. “It’s a commitment,” jests Drewno. Judging from his rewrites at the Source, he knows the meaning of the word.