Hotel restaurants aren’t what they used to be, certainly not in Washington. They’re more engaging than ever before — destinations all by themselves.
Game to eat roast duck with a pantry of condiments standing up? The seatless Spoken English in the Line hotel has you covered. Curious what gnocchi made with tofu tastes like? Let me point you to the meatless pleasure at American Son in the Eaton hotel. Kith/Kin in the Intercontinental Washington DC represents a rare mingling of African and Caribbean accents, and the Pembroke in the reimagined Dupont Circle hotel showcases $5 million of eye candy, along with a tagine that channels Morocco.
The latest example of more flavor in our lodging comes at Via Sophia, unveiled in June in the Hamilton Hotel overlooking Franklin Square. Wisely, the owners recruited a chef with serious chops: Colin Clark, a veteran of Washington hot spots Fiola Mare and Le Diplomate and a protege of the admired Italian chef Marc Vetri in Clark’s native Philadelphia.
The focus on the corner of 14th and K streets NW is pasta and pizza, made from scratch. Don’t fall asleep on me, though. As full as some of us are from both, the chef’s additions to the plenitude are appreciated. At a moment when good pasta feels unstoppable in the city, his rigatoni decked out with crisp octopus, tender clams and tangy tomato sauce is a leader in the pack. Clark’s pizza tastes novel, too. The nicely chewy crust relies on whole-wheat flour and a couple days of fermentation, plus a brief stop in an 800-degree oven before the blistered pie lands on your table.
“I want everything to feel very Italian,” says the chef. “But I want to surprise people a little bit.” Early on, diners quizzed the staff about the fragrance wafting from Via Sophia’s ornate tuna carpaccio. Orange blossom vinaigrette, they were told. Beef tartare fits in the usual sharpeners of mustard and capers, but also chopped sun-dried tomatoes and aged pecorino cheese for a more pronounced bite.
The chef counts himself a fan of Italian-American fare and proves the point with a lunchtime sandwich that puts slices of breaded chicken between house-baked focaccia. The idea is a fine one, and I applaud the use of smoked eggplant crema instead of mayonnaise as a spread and focaccia crumbs blended with herbs and Parmesan on the chicken. The only caveat is the size of the structure. The sandwich practically challenges the District’s height restrictions. I dare you to take a bite and not make a mess: on you, the table or both.
I’ve yet to meet a pasta I didn’t want to repeat. The heartiest is a special turned star attraction: gnocchi in a blanket of duck ragu — morsels as opposed to shreds — that warms the mouth with red wine, anchovy and prosciutto. Shaved black truffles explain its $36 price tag. Clark knows not to mess with the classics. Bucatini cacio e pepe features pasta that’s cooked enough to make it supple but not soft, followed by grated pecorino toscano and fresh cracked pepper. And I love the way his scroll-shaped mushroom pasta catches bits of sausage, herbs and carrot in its ridges.
This being a hotel restaurant, Via Sophia is obliged to offer some straightforward choices. Exhibit A is salmon, seared to a light crisp and flanked by grilled vegetables. More Italian in every respect is the whole branzino, carefully deboned at the table and served with a salsa verde that tastes equal parts sunshine (lemon, capers) and herb garden (basil, arugula). Now and then comes a combination that simply puts the season on display. Late summer brought toasted semolina bread slathered with whipped ricotta and glorious peaches, and a side dish of charred corn tossed with ricotta salata and zingy red Fresno chiles.
Only occasionally does the kitchen disappoint. The most notable slip over the course of four meals was a frisee salad hosting artichokes, potatoes, pancetta and an egg. Salt was the dominant seasoning, and the egg was overcooked: no runny yolk to help “dress” the salad. The misfire meant we plucked more from the fritto misto, whose blond, barely there batter relies on white wine, another “surprise” in Clark’s arsenal.
The best finish is an intense chocolate budino. Capped with whipped cream and sprinkled with chocolate beads, the pudding is just a few sublime, well-placed ingredients. The chef’s “surprise” is a few rosemary leaves.
Via Sophia is the only restaurant I know to be named after a good Samaritan. Long story short: When a hotel consultant’s young son got caught in a treadmill at home in Connecticut several Christmas Eves ago, Sophia was the little girl who rescued him.
Some important particulars keep me from higher praise for the newcomer.
Service can be wildly inconsistent. Some visits, Via Sophia practically does backflips for its patrons. After four of us were moved from a wobbly patio table to a more secure one, a bottle of champagne was produced. When we declined the bubbles, a charcuterie board showed up to compensate us for the trouble of having moved less than two feet away.
Another night, I felt as if I were back at Via Sophia’s generic predecessor, 14K Restaurant. Not only did entrees follow too quickly on the heels of appetizers, my server seemed bothered when I sought her out to see the wine list. (Judging from her breath, I might have interrupted a smoke break.) Worse, my glass didn’t show up until just as we were finishing our main courses.
Then there’s the setting. Nothing against pizza paddles on the wall, silvery chairs, fat marble columns or stacks of wood, but the glare in the dining room suggests a prison yard being swept for an escapee. Let there be ... less light, please? Otherwise, diners feel compelled to do an Anna Wintour and wear sunglasses inside. And of course it’s loud, because isn’t just about every new dining establishment?
The food deserves better. Clark is cooking his heart out, but the restaurant is making him do it with a hand behind his back.
Via Sophia (Good) 1001 14th St. NW. 202-218-7575. viasophiadc.com. Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Prices: Dinner appetizers $12 to $17, pizzas $16 to $20, pasta $22 to $30, main courses $24 to $90 (for steak for two). Sound check: 77 decibels / Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Wheelchair users can enter from the hotel lobby on 14th Street.