(Good / Excellent)
During the wee hours of Nov. 9, BLT Prime by David Burke in the Trump International Hotel became the reddest restaurant in Washington.
The fact that it’s a steakhouse is beside the point.
Maybe you’ve been to the landmark, curious to see how $212 million transformed the former Old Post Office Pavilion into one of the most opulent hotels this city has ever seen.
Maybe you’ve avoided the venue, electing to spend your dining budget on something other than a controversial brand. (Never in my career have more people turned down the promise of a free meal. “It’s too soon,” a new acquaintance said, begging off my invitation to join me on a review visit.)
If history had played out differently, of course, the hotel’s signature restaurant would be Spanish-Japanese in flavor — and former senator Bob Dole would likely not have been seated a table away from me, post-election. Instead, prompted by anti-Mexican remarks by candidate Donald Trump, followed by an election that split the country, the main restaurant is watched over not by D.C. mainstay José Andrés but by New York chef David Burke.
Trump and his hire, 54, share some history. An alumnus of “Top Chef Masters,” among other credits, Burke first cooked for Trump 28 years ago, when he was asked to cater a Fourth of July party aboard the real estate mogul’s yacht.
With several meals under my belt, I offer some thoughts on an establishment sure to be on the radar for at least the next four years.
The service is terrific. One night, the good impressions formed well before I stepped inside the hotel, when a security type welcomed me from behind a row of metal rails on the sidewalk, passed me off to what appeared to be an executive, who ushered me to a genial doorman, who escorted me to a stage set of a lobby. Not every visit brought out such a long red carpet, but the hosts, servers and managers always worked as a team to make sure diners were pampered. “Would you like a chair for your bag?” a server inquired about my briefcase. The attention at BLT Prime reminds me that food is only one reason we go to restaurants.
Siberia doesn’t exist. There are no obvious bad tables in the atrium-like, plant-rich dining room, where I once had a bird fly inches from my head. Pretty much anywhere you land, BLT Prime offers a postcard view of the glittery lobby lounge, dripping with chandeliers and paved with marble.
Go easy on the bread. Like its sibling nearby, BLT Steak, the newcomer serves popovers, mitt-size and hot from the oven. They’re very good and very filling. Consider splitting one, because there’s more goodness on the horizon, starting with one of the best amuse-bouches downtown: a flaky, button-size tart, one per customer, that announces the season with its filling. One night it highlights potato and leek capped with a shaved black truffle; another evening commences with a tartlette rich with pureed squash and duck confit.
Anticipate some gimmicks. “Clothesline” candied bacon is pretty much what the menu says it is, four thick strips of sweet-smoky bacon from Nueske’s in Wisconsin, suspended with tiny clips to a string between two little poles. The appetizer, which sometimes drips fat, makes an offbeat, if satisfying, start to a meal. And yes, you may have seen the idea, more artfully rendered, at the acclaimed Alinea in Chicago. Servers sometimes mention the high-wire act as an example of “the playful and inventive cuisine of David Burke,” a presence every two weeks or so. (Chef Marc Hennessy, formerly of BLT Steak, handles day-to-day duties.) Hedonistic? Yes. But remember, you’re in a steakhouse, not a health spa. Until I ate at BLT Prime, I’d never had a grape breaded in cornflakes and deep-fried. The curiosity was introduced, crisp and juicy, as a garnish with ruddy steak tartare — gilded with poached foie gras. The combination is cleaner, and finer, than it sounds.
Slice into something different. There are better and more varied cuts of meat in town (see: Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons hotel), but this is the only Washington restaurant I know of that dry-ages some of its beef in lockers lined with pink Himalayan salt. Order the prime, 20-ounce Kansas City steak and revel in its mineral tang and shimmer (credit butter, sometimes beef drippings). The slab comes with a brushstroke of what Burke refers to as house-made Worcestershire sauce that ricochets from sweet to spicy. The condiment, charged with honey, tamarind, horseradish and vinegar, proves unnecessary but intriguing.
Open wide for the burger. “It’s showtime!” a server says as he deposits a tall hamburger on my table one lunch. He’s not kidding. The patty, shaped with dry-aged beef and tucked inside a quality sesame-seeded bun, is juicy and well-seasoned, and it comes with a tin cup of thin herbed fries.
Pescatarians will be welcome. Repeat dives into a category called “Ocean Meats” reveal a kitchen willing to please fish lovers as much as meatheads. Dover sole is a class act of firm, meaty fish simply garnished with brown butter and pungent capers; the cost ($61) underscores its source across the pond. Butterflied black sea bass, bundled with shiso leaf and lemon zest, had its recipient wondering aloud if she could duplicate the steamed catch, fragrant with pickled ginger, at home. For those who can’t decide between surf or turf, there are plump rack of lamb and grilled octopus on the same ticket, er, plate (although the second time I tried the combo, the octopus was chewier than optimal).
Most of the sides are stars. Potatoes whipped with seemingly tubs of butter are some of the richest, stretchiest spuds you will ever eat, and the creamed spinach is noteworthy for the fact you taste first vegetable, then garlic, then cream (and not too much of it). While I really wanted to hate the “couch” potatoes lined up on a doll-size cedar banquette, each little tuber crowned with a crisp onion ring, I have to say they were model baked potatoes. “The only thing better would be if they were on a velvet couch,” a server said as she placed them on the table.
Skip dessert. Bland orange flan and a better apple tart take a page from hotel banquets. Some, like the sweet lemon tart bejeweled with (never mind that it’s winter) enormous raspberries, entice the eyes more than the palate. I favor the gratis little sweets that show up with the bill.
Converse! Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there’s this nugget: Even when the lobby is swarming with visitors, the restaurant overlooking it offers a rare sound check that’s close to normal conversation.
If there’s one thing this country can probably get around, it’s restaurants where you can hear yourself think.
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1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.
Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $14 to $35, main courses $32 to $64.
69 decibels / Conversation is easy.