The closest analogy is going to the theater and finding an understudy playing the lead. You flip disconsolately to the page in the playbill, scrutinizing their headshot as you calculate how much of your ticket price was the value of seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda. It is less like seeing the physician assistant when you wanted to see the doctor (this you know in advance) or a pinch hitter (they are subbed because they may have a better chance of hitting the ball).
But there it is. Sometimes you go to a restaurant with the aim of seeing the work of a particular chef, and they are off for the night. Entree prices aren’t discounted, and there is no flier inserted in the menu: “Tonight the role of chef will be played by ...” Ostensibly, he or she has trained the team as a pirate captain, through the alchemy of fear, respect and muscle memory. There shouldn’t be a bobble.
What if the chef has been gone for five weeks on medical leave? This was the case of William Morris at Cherry, W Washington D.C.’s renovated lobby-level restaurant. Medical leaves are seldom fortuitous, but this one seemed especially ill-timed because the restaurant opened mid-June and the dining public was ready to see how Morris, formerly of Vermilion in Alexandria and Bourbon Steak in Georgetown, had put his stamp on the space that used to be Pinea. The sous-chef charged with stepping into the role accepted a job elsewhere, a temp was brought in and the hotel’s executive chef, Barry Koslow, added Cherry oversight to his to-do list.
Cherry has bobbled. What may have been crisp, distinct ideas upon conception have blurred a bit. But it is also true that a number of dishes at two recent dinners and a brunch seemed odd in vision, and service can hover and disappear in equally disconcerting measures. With cocktails ringing in at a stiff $17 and dinner entree prices in the $30 range, Morris will have a notable task upon his return of making the restaurant come-hither to any but hotel guests.
There is a secret weapon of sorts. A 15-foot, custom-built, wood-fired flywheel hearth and grill from Grillworks anchors the space and provides a performance element. Sous-chefs raise and lower the grill grates via a quartet of metal wheels, palming to spin up and down the way a cocky 16-year-old does the steering wheel once he’s weaned himself of the 10-and-2 position. Most dishes get the perfume of an open fire, cherry one of five woods used to get the job done.
The dining room, which has been opened up to the lobby during the hotel’s $50 million facelift, is stylish, with soaring windows framed by long white sheers, as well as austere black rectilinear pillars echoed by black tabletops and softened by upholstered benches (which, sadly, don’t fit neatly beneath tables and are a pain to get in and out of). An adjacent bar, called the Corner Office, functions as spillover from the restaurant and also as its own pizza-and-craft-beer concept. Still, the best seats are the bar stools flanking the front of the flywheel grill, its heat just enough to pink your cheeks.
The wine menu has been expanded from just a handful since the restaurant debuted, but it is still mostly a compendium of greatest hits and the least interesting part of the beverage program. A strong list of local drafts is mirrored by an even stronger commitment to local distilleries. The cocktail list is the work of Amsterdam-based consultant Jarl de Vries, and nearly all of its shrubs, bitters, spirits and accoutrements are sourced from within 50 miles of the District. A quartet of barrel-aged classics brings assured preparations without needless frippery beyond a good ice cube or twist, while some of the signature cocktails can get bogged down with details: The “In a Pickle” with Ivy City gin, for one, gets a precariously balanced plank of frozen pickled watermelon, but there’s nowhere to put it, so a drinker holds it aloft like a slippery cigar while sipping.
A grazing approach suits Cherry’s style, perhaps starting with half an ember-charred avocado sitting in a puddle of rough salsa with a little hot sauce kick (its grilled lime half functioning more as an avocado prop-up than flavor element), or crossed tentacles of tender grilled octopus draped across a rustic saute of peppers and onions powered by a chorizo oil boost. This is not architecturally composed tweezer food, but homey, relaxed presentations unified by their reliance on a whiff of wood smoke.
It doesn’t always jell, as in a tuna crudo, the swaths of fish parried by similar-looking cubes of compressed watermelon, neither done any favors by what tasted like a pool of straightforward canned coconut milk steeped with lime leaf and topped by chicharrones that were much too tough and thick to be an appealing counterpoint. The short menu’s only salad, two long wedges of baby gem napped with ranch made with everything spice (so ubiquitous there’s got to be an Everything Spice Latte coming to Starbucks soon), gets perfect rosettes of crisp pancetta, but a much-too-sweet tomato jam gums up the works.
Some ingredients get special treatment on the grill, either in improvised saute setups or in fireboxes, used like little sweat lodges above the flames to steam-roast such things as baby carrots. Those caramelized carrots, while appealingly paired with a sprinkling of mint and chopped pistachio, called out for a bit of sauce as a finisher, maybe a tangy yogurt or a brace of acidity. The most balanced dish proved to be the least likely on paper: flame-grilled summer squash on a bed of Virginia peanut butter and little fluffs of salty goat’s milk feta. Its chunky, grainy peanut butter surprised with tiny pops of cardamom, the soft, brown-edged wheels of zucchini and yellow squash somehow mesmerizing when dragged through the murk.
Strangely, before the restaurant opened much was made of the dry-aged steaks that would be given the Grillworks treatment. There is currently only a filet on the dinner menu, and a Creekstone Farms burger is the only other beef. In fact, one of the most interesting entrees is the vegetarian option, a spin on stuffed cabbage (called barigoule, a description one usually associates with artichoke) with smoky mushroom and chopped chickpea lending a meaty, umami filling, and pops of sweet raisin a welcome rebuttal. Nearly as appealing was a tumble of smoky shrimp and rounds of chorizo with soft-cooked potato and lengths of piquillo pepper, its dusky orange sauce swipeable with toasted rusks of white bread. (The dish could scale back the number of caperberries, which can add a dominating salty sandiness.)
While wan breakfast pastries and a sadly deflated Dutch baby swamped with berry compote didn’t provide much optimism about the pastry/dessert side of the kitchen, the milk chocolate hazelnut joy is the kind of meal-ender that makes you giddy and prone to spoon-sparring. Swirls of thick caramel and cocoa nibs garnish the plate, while a quenelle of hazelnut ice cream sidles against a chocolate-swathed rectangle of layered cake, its bottom layer boasting a satisfying crunch.
In a city with a lot of competition at this price point, Cherry has its work cut out for it. Hopefully Morris, who is expected back shortly after recovering from surgery, will get a second bite at that particular fruit, with a fall menu poised to debut upon his return. An attractive restaurant design and that phalanx of flywheels could be a real pip.
Reiley is a food business reporter for The Post and was previously a food critic at the Tampa Bay Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Baltimore Sun. Next week: Tom Sietsema’s Fall Dining Guide.
Cherry (Good) 515 15th St. NW. 202-661-2400. cherrywdc.com. Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Prices: Dinner starters $8-$16, dinner entrees $20-$32; breakfast $12-$19. Sound check: 73 decibels / Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Easy wheelchair access to dining room. Some tables with benches may present seating problems, as would either of the elevated exhibition bar seating areas.