To access the new restaurant in Washington’s most talked-about hotel, you navigate an atrium awash in white marble and carpets, climb two sets of marble stairs and follow a host to a buffed Macassar ebony table near an ornate railing overlooking the lobby. Are we in Vegas? Grand Central Terminal? The curved steel arches from the Old Post Office Pavilion have been painted gold; immense chandeliers drop from the beams. There are fewer than a dozen of us eating in the 120-seat BLT Prime by David Burke, on a mezzanine within Trump International Hotel, which means everyone else is pouring water, crumbing tables, dropping off edible sight gags or answering questions from curious patrons.
The elephant in the room is the Republican presidential candidate. “Has Mr. Trump eaten here?” I ask my waiter, knowing the place has been open less than 24 hours on Saturday night. “He’s been downstairs,” the server says, gesturing to the lobby. For security reasons, he adds, the mogul didn’t venture higher, out of concern that someone might push him. We return to cocktails — some of which, like the Manhattan Tea Party — insert politics into dinner, and look up to see the clock tower of the old post office visible through a ceiling of reinforced glass panels. The expansive dining room is a beneficiary of the natural light. Indeed, BLT Prime, dressed with faux trees and real plants, leads guests to believe they’re dining al fresco, albeit free of breezes and mosquitoes.
BLT Prime — part of a restaurant group that also includes the BLT Steak chain — was not the original idea for the hotel’s signature restaurant. Earlier, celebrity chef José Andrés had been tapped to create a Spanish-Japanese statement. Some choice words about Mexican workers by Donald Trump saw Andrés withdraw from the project. Lawsuits were filed.
Still, I try to keep an open mind as I peruse the menu. Created by New York chef David Burke, the list hews to a mainstream steakhouse format — with notable exceptions. Among the first courses, or “farm apps” as they’re called, are strips of candied bacon clipped to a miniature “clothesline.” An otherwise-routine Caesar salad is sprinkled with dice-size crab cakes masquerading as croutons. Oysters on the half shell appear to have stopped by a gourmet pantry en route to my table. Sharing the craggy cups are bits of Virginia ham, custardy sea urchin and pineapple mignonette: a riot of pork, sea and fruit that basically negates the need for the oysters to even show up. People who typically don’t go for bivalves, though, might ask for seconds of these dressier ones.
Diners can double their fun with “cake & coffee,” a two-part appetizer composed of a baked casserole of sweet Maryland crab strewn with basil bread crumbs and a demitasse of frothy reduced crab stock — basically “a shot of the sea,” says Burke. The indulgence, a heady seafood promotion, is $21 but easily shareable.
Warm popovers, a carry-over from BLT Steak, start dinner on a generous note. Butter for the bread arrives on a little slab of pink Himalayan sea salt, which gives our waiter a chance to introduce us to a Burke-patented way of aging meat. In addition to wet aging and dry aging, BLT Prime offers several cuts of beef that are stowed in a cool locker lined with Himalayan sea salt. The chef believes salt aging slows down shrinkage and promotes a “cleaner” taste.
Part of me was tempted to order my (merely dry-aged) New York strip steak the way Trump asks for it: so thoroughly cooked that “it would rock on the plate,” according to his longtime butler at the Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach. But then, I think, what a sad way to treat a beautiful piece of beef and delete its mineral tang. Burke designed one of the side dishes with both millennials and leftovers in mind. French fries tossed with shishito peppers, Parmesan cheese and beef jerky trimmings would have been better with potatoes that were hotter, crisper and billed as anything other than “Hipster Fries.”
Not in the mood for grilled beef? Dover sole, firm and sweet, is the real deal (and priced as such, at $61). To attract an international clientele, day-to-day chef Marc Hennessy, a veteran of BLT Steak, came up with a fried pork shank that he glazes with an Asian barbecue sauce and serves alongside noodles that soak up the juices. The combination of crackling skin, succulent flesh and slippery noodles is one I plan to revisit. Treated as if it were a steak, duck is slightly cured, seared and cut down the middle of the breast; the result is a dense, peppery, full-flavored bar of duck whose reduced citrus sauce suggests duck a l’orange. Petals of Brussels sprouts make a fluffy frame for the entree; butternut squash puree adds an autumnal note.
A survey of the room finds a curious mix of boomers and others who could pass for Ivanka look-alikes with their long legs, gleaming smiles and noses in smartphones. When I ask a manager what big-name diners have been in so far, she says, “A number of celebrities,” but the only one she could recall is Eric Trump, the winemaker in the famous family.
As you might expect, desserts are bold statements; dare I call them Trump stamps? Example A is a small wire tree, each metal branch tipped with a fresh raspberry or a single ball of cheesecake. There’s the option of dipping the ornaments in a bowl of pink whipped cream. Unless you want your fruit or cake to taste like bubble gum, resist the urge. Randomly, Burke, seemingly eager to chat up guests, drops off another dessert, a fat chocolate “cigar” resting on an ashtray heaped with embers. The ash — crushed meringue colored black with squid ink — is an extension of the joke (and too sweet for my taste).
Curiosity is bound to fill some seats in what is basically another steakhouse in the city’s most controversial hotel. Going forward, it falls to Burke and company to rally enthusiasm for a restaurant that feels like it already exists, manyfold.
1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-645-1100. Dinner entrees, $32 to $64.