When you’re billing yourself as a progressive hotel with an emphasis on wellness, it’s probably not in your best interest to serve foie gras croquettes.
So Tim Ma, the chef recruited by the new Eaton hotel to create all its menus, replaced the idea with a blast from his past. Recalling a funnel cake he served at his debut restaurant, Maple Avenue in Vienna, Ma reconfigured the dessert as a savory dish for American Son, the Eaton’s flagship dining room. Simply listed as potato croquettes, the small plate arrives as a surprise: golden squiggles of fried batter dusted with what appears to be powdered sugar, but is in fact duck fat powder. The finishing touch is a lashing of black garlic molasses.
To sample the bold dish is to taste a hit — and quickly place a second order.
The name of the signature restaurant can be traced to Ma’s youth. The chef’s family moved from Taiwan to Arkansas in the late 1970s. In an attempt to adapt to U.S. culture as quickly as possible, Ma’s parents spoke only English at home as soon as he enrolled in school, at 5. While attending a Chinese New Year celebration in Virginia as a teenager, the chef’s mother introduced him to her Chinese friends as “my American son.” Like everyone who heard the story, Eaton’s founder, Katherine “Kat” Lo, fell for the good fit.
Ma says Lo, the daughter of Lo Ka Shui, the Hong Kong real estate billionaire, empowered him to take a point of view. In some cases, notably the potato fritters, that meant “ripping apart” familiar American dishes, says the chef. In others, he took a notion from Kyirisan, his Chinese French restaurant in Shaw, and changed its accessories. Order the gnocchi made with tofu at American Son and the soft pillows are presented with shaved sunchokes, diced cooked apples and a butter sauce rounded out with white miso. (Beige rarely tastes so good.)
If there’s a weak link here, it’s the honey-streaked ricotta with sails of crackers, memorable mostly for leaving diners with sticky fingers.
“At the end of the day, we’re a hotel restaurant catering to a much larger audience,” says Ma, who serves a banh mi, a burger and avocado toast for lunch.
Originally planned as a Mediterranean venue, the new restaurant inherited a pizza oven, but “I’m not making pizza,” says Ma. Instead, he’s using the heat source to char shishito peppers and cook a bone-in rib-eye, a large-format entree that goes for $100. For half that, though, diners can get interactive with the curvy whole red snapper, which looks as though it had been fried mid-swim, or baked spaghetti squash, served with cool butter lettuce and a host of Asian condiments for wrapping. The latter platter, also cooked in the pizza oven, was inspired by Ma’s fondness for the pleasures of Korean barbecue. (Hold the meat, in this case.) I can vouch for the appeal of shredded spaghetti squash bundled with fried garlic, shallots and Korean chili paste in a green ruffle. Also: Fanned duck breast is flattered with plum jus, tapioca with coconut sorbet is snow-white and wonderful, and the cute kid smiling from the check folder is the guy who helms the kitchen.
Ma has his hands full at Eaton, which comes with 200-plus guest rooms and a director of impact and sustainability. In addition to American Son, the chef is responsible for the eats at Wild Days, Eaton’s rooftop bar; Allegory, a cocktail lounge; Kintsugi, a coffee shop; and both banquet and in-room fare.
He’s still watching over Kyirisan, too. Thank goodness for electric scooters.
1201 K St. NW. 202-900-8416. americanson1978.com. Dinner (small plates), $12 to $28.