The most consistent thing about Pinea in the W Hotel is the restaurant’s unpredictability. A returning customer shouldn’t expect to experience the same food — good or bad — as he did before in the dining room, named for the pine trees of southern Europe.
An initial dinner left me eager to rebook. Huzzah for a fritto misto with a batter so light it merely clings to vegetables rather than smother their flavor. Same for a duck confit in which the snap of crisp skin is followed by the succulence of duck that has been cured and cooked in its own fat. An accent of orange gremolata only sweetens the deal.
A later lunch left me wondering not only if the chef had the day off, but also if he took his recipes with him. A few bites into a piece of damp swordfish with bland “charred” cauliflower and a vague carrot romesco, I put my fork down for the duration of the meal. The muddle of flavors wasn’t helped by stale lavash, which Pinea serves instead of bread.
Chef Barry Koslow left downtown’s fine DGS Delicatessen, his “passion project,” to take over the venue once occupied by J&G Steakhouse. “I’m getting back to my roots: fine dining,” Koslow announced when he fired up the hotel ovens last October. His résumé suggested some lip-smacking to follow; the upscale 2941 in Falls Church and the late Michel Richard Citronelle in Georgetown were past employers.
Those pit stops help explain why the more luxurious a dish sounds, the better your odds are of wanting to finish it. Foie gras fuels Koslow’s very good torchon, served on a cushion of brioche with kumquat marmalade and streaks of black pepper gastrique, the fruit and the heat working together to offset the richness of the foie gras. Risotto, cooked so the grains retain a welcome resistance, and fragrant with saffron, is richer still for the many morsels of lobster and mussels in the swirl of rice and butter.
Seafood and pasta are, for the most part, sure bets at Pinea. Consider as an appetizer Koslow’s creamy crab croquettes, lined up like marbles on their slender white plate. The menu says they include guanciale (cured pork), but that flavor is faint. To the rescue: a racy remoulade for dipping. Branzino is presented whole, with olives, red onion, mint and citrus to flatter the iconic Mediterranean fish, which is whisked away and filleted by staff if you wish.
The above is Jekyll cooking. Hyde sends out such things as hanger steak on a piece of toast spread with soft peppers and tomato (piperade), which sounds interesting in print but yields limp squares of beef topped with a slab of Camembert that appears to have passed by nothing hotter than a hair dryer on its way to the table. The cheese is barely melted. Sauteed shrimp set on a fan of avocado and sprinkled with sunflower seeds are dressed with a supposedly smoked tomato vinaigrette that lacks any force. If you got this first course on a United upgrade, you might be okay with it. On the ground floor of a capacious, turquoise-and-silver dining room, the arrangement is amateurish.
It’s not uncommon for restaurants to charge more on holidays and special occasions. On Valentine’s Day, the restaurant charged $40 for beef short ribs. Tender and glossy, they were almost obscured by a fistful of baby carrots that, like the lifts in Tom Cruise’s shoes, gave the center of the plate significant stature. Even at $32, the regular cost, the entree was overpriced, however. For that kind of money, a diner expects more flair: a fillip of foie gras, a scattering of gold leaf, a drum roll, maybe delivery by the chef himself. What I got was celery root puree (boring) and a mince of parsley, garlic and vinegar (better).
Grilled baby eggplant on a thick swipe of chickpea puree, among the few meatless choices, comes with charred tomatoes and broccoli rabe. The composition is hearty. Like too many vegetarian selections, however, it feels more like a roll call of side dishes than the thoughtful effort of a chef. Far better are pillowy agnolotti plumped with winter squash and tangy goat cheese. Koslow does well with supports. In this case, rapini pesto enlivens the pasta.
Desserts demonstrate some flair. Coconut cremeaux, probably the best in show, brings to mind the Indian ice cream called kulfi. Passion fruit sorbet makes a nice accomplice. A dip into Pinea’s creme brulee, served with a palmier, reveals lavender in the custard, but not so much that you think you’re eating potpourri.
Ultimately, this picture calls for a director to tinker with the script. Surely I’m not the only customer to question why a Mediterranean-themed restaurant puts its servers in checkered shirts, hangs red and blue plates of elephants and donkeys on the wall of an alcove and plays Michael Jackson songs better suited to a high school prom than a dining room with aspirations. One man’s two cents: Fennel fronds submerged in a vase of water look more like kitchen trimmings than table decoration. But I appreciate a downtown restaurant that doesn’t charge for valet parking. By the time you read this, Pinea is expected to cover its cathedral-size columns in mirrors and display the edgy work of Gaia, the acclaimed Baltimore street artist, in the form of two murals.
The restaurant’s staff has what the menu lacks: reliability, in the form of cheer and attention. In the small-world department, the charming gent behind the bar on my last visit turned out to be my favorite Uber driver. I hope he doesn’t give up his side job.
Location: 515 15th St. NW. 202-661-2440. www.pineadc.com.
Open: Breakfast 6:30 to 10:30 a.m. daily; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekends.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $11 to $18, main courses $19 to $36.
Sound check: 65 decibels/Conversation is easy.
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