We were halfway up the staircase, a massive, glittering thing that seemed to have been lifted from an Oscars set, when my friend paused, letting the hostess go on ahead. This was done to better take in her clingy black cocktail dress, cropped a good six inches above the knee. Lenny Kravitz was wailing on the soundtrack, imploring us to “Let Love Rule.” Rock ’n’ roll at dinnertime? In DC? And at a level at which you could actually make out the words?
Below us, the bar was abuzz, swarming with the sort of young, good-looking people that high-gloss ad campaigns can’t get enough of. A midweek dinner, but it had the unmistakable feel of a private event at the kind of clubs that neither my friend nor I go to anymore—swanky, sexy affairs. Looking out over the lounge like a mountain climber surveying how far he’d come, he leaned in and said, à la Dorothy to Toto: “This ain’t DC.”
The Source gives the lie to many things, among them the notion that Washington is too starchy and conservative for a restaurant that seems to encourage you to show up in jeans (pressed, designer) and strum an air guitar between courses.
Here’s what else it gives the lie to: the idea that a celebrity chef with a sprawling empire of restaurants, cookbooks, cookware, and frozen foods can’t possibly turn out food this exciting and exacting, especially at a satellite located a coast away from his base of operation.
Yes, the closest you’ll come to glimpsing Wolfgang Puck is the sepia-toned picture of the smiling Austrian superchef on the doggie bags. Puck tapped a protégé, Scott Drewno, to oversee the kitchen, and Drewno seems to share the boss’s mania for glammed-up dishes that tease and titillate but also end up impressing you with their technical mastery. He also shares the boss’s mania for the range and depth of Asian cooking.
The spicy green beans, standing in for an amuse-bouche, are a strong argument for restaurants to dispense with the often effete practice of sending out a thimbleful of soup to whet the palate. Intensely flavorful, generously portioned, they make for a terrific précis of Drewno’s menu.
From there, it’s a smooth transition to a plate of thin, pan-fried dumplings filled with an unctuously rich pork belly, probably the best Chinese dish I’ve eaten all year. Or the marvelously ungluey shrimp-and-scallop shu mai or the lobster daikon roll, a crunchy band of cool radish swaddled around sweet, fat hunks of lobster meat—both of which surpass the creative efforts of almost every sushi bar in the city.
The waitress who one night touted the chef’s “excellent juxtapositions” only served to raise my suspicions, but Drewno is so fluent in his splicing of East with West that the approach doesn’t ever feel willed or weird. The double-cut grilled lamb chops, set off with a chili-mint vinaigrette, convey the heft and savor that many cross-cultural forays miss. The depth and spicing in a dish the kitchen tried out early on—prawns in an Indian sambal with curry leaves—could make you think you’re eating in a terrific curry house.
In many of these dishes, there’s another kind of fusion going on—of street food and fine dining. The steamed whole sea bass marries the best qualities of a good, authentic Chinese spot—simplicity and regard for fish—with those of a first-rate restaurant: superior shopping, the choice of two sauces, and tableside deboning.
If there’s an off note, it’s the incongruity of an atmosphere meant to lure the young and trendy with prices that take aim at executive expense accounts. That’s a fusion we can do without. “I need to take out a loan to get the duck,” a guy perusing the menu at the next table said one night.
And the duck isn’t the most expensive entrée. That would be the “American-style Kobe steak”—the inauthentic article for $60. The pan-roasted Maine lobster isn’t far behind, at $58, and several entrées flirt with the $40 mark. Considering that the celebrity chef—the one who makes it possible to charge 40-plus dollars for an entrée—is not actually on the premises, it’s beyond presumptuous; it’s reckless.
The duck, by the way, is one of the few glaring failures, with a sweet huckleberry sauce that only accentuates the fattiness of the meat. It’s one of the curious tendencies of a kitchen that, while fervently embracing Asian ingredients and accents, can’t seem to wean itself from the Western need for sweet.
Upstairs is the more formal of the two dining areas in that there are tablecloths on the tables and a menu broken down into component parts. But it would be a mistake to equate more formality with more polish.
Good as dinner in the dining room can be, I had more fun eating in the lounge, which specializes in bad-for-you food that’s exceptionally light and brimming with unexpected detail: juice-dripping Kobe mini-burgers on butter-sheened buns; General Tso’s chicken wings so good that you may never eat any other version; perfect gnocchi; a big-eye tuna tartare that’s one of the few preparations of that fish in town still worth eating; and the best calzone I’ve ever had—a great, billowing dome of pastry filled with four cheeses.
If you plan to make a small meal, then plan to spend three digits, easily. It doesn’t qualify as a big night out to sit on a high barstool, but the cooking couldn’t be more gratifying.
The finish that’s not to be missed, whether you’re sitting upstairs or downstairs, is the chocolate “purse”—a bundled brik pastry that shatters when pierced, spilling a midnight-dark chocolate sauce.
It’s one of the rare desserts, chocolate or otherwise, worth splurging for. I wouldn’t mind seeing a score of imitations across the city. The same goes for this canny synthesis of East and West, DC and LA, fine dining and street food, seriousness and fun.