Chefs, Bling, and Ice(land): The Best and Worst of the 2008 Rammy Awards

Last night, the Marriott Wardman Park was awash in “black tie and bling”—the specified dress code for this year’s Rammy Awards gala. Put on by the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, these awards honor the region’s chefs and restaurants in numerous categories. Nominated chefs were the evening’s rock stars, arriving dressed to impress with entourages of family, staff, and publicists. Read on for the best and worst moments of the sparkly affair.

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Most ironic moment: Barton Seaver taking the award for Rising Star Chef just a few days after his not-exactly-amicable split with Georgetown seafood restaurant Hook went public. The roomful of in-the-know foodies was clearly amused by this victory. Needless to say, there was no shout-out to Hook owner Jonathan Umbel in Seaver’s long list of thank-yous. [Correction: In Barton Seaver's acceptance speech for his Rising Star Chef honor, he did thank the owners of Hook.]

Biggest letdown: Given that these were restaurant-industry awards, the food at the VIP cocktail reception was pretty dismal. Dried-out tuna skewers, oddly flavored ceviche, and run-of-the-mill cocktail-hour beef-Wellington puffs didn’t impress. A couple of saving graces were the mini-arancini (how could fried risotto balls stuffed with cheese be bad?) and the fresh shrimp and clams on the raw bar, which was an ice-carved replica of DC monuments. There were oysters, too, but they ran out fast.

Most apparent sponsor: Iceland. Guests dined on applewood-smoked Icelandic char, ravioli with pear and Icelandic Dimon cheese (insanely rich—and delicious!), and Icelandic lamb loin wrapped in spinach. Scenes of Iceland made frequent appearances on the big screens, and the ambassador of Iceland presented the final award for Chef of the Year with last year’s winner, Restaurant Eve chef/owner Cathal Armstrong. Iceland’s PR team clearly did a good job of putting the country—which hosts a food festival every year and apparently has a burgeoning food scene—on the radar of Washington’s gastronomes.

Best outfit: We’re not sure how it fit into the “black tie and bling” theme, but we loved Co Co. Sala owner Bharet Malhotra’s fashion statement. He looked regal in an elegant Indian kurta—raw silk trimmed in red—paired with dark jeans.

Most unexpected award presenter: Barbara Fairchild, editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit magazine. We’re not sure what drew the LA-based editor to the ceremony, but she talked about covering DC’s restaurant scene and praised it as one of the most exciting in the nation.

Biggest surprise: We—and everyone else—thought Central Michel Richard had it in the bag for Best New Restaurant. After all, a few weeks ago, Richard’s Franco-American bistro took the James Beard award for Best New Restaurant . . . in the country. But the Rammy went to the Source by Wolfgang Puck, and executive chef Scott Drewno, who was clearly shocked himself, gave a humble and sincere acceptance speech.

Best embodiment of the “black tie and bling” theme: Belga Café’s Bart Vandaele hung a six-inch (faux) diamond-encrusted dollar sign around his neck. Although his Capitol Hill restaurant wasn’t nominated in any of the Rammy categories, he wins the flashiest-attendee award in our book. (UPDATE: Our fault. Belga Cafe was indeed nominated for Neighborhood Gathering Place of the Year. Our apologies for the error.)

Best celebrity-who’s-not-actually-a-celebrity sighting
: Spike Mendelsohn of Top Chef sported his signature fedora, headgear that he came to be known for on the Bravo TV show. Washingtonians will soon recognize him as the face of Good Stuff Eatery, a burger-and-shake spot set to open later this week on Capitol Hill.

Most sentimental moment: A tribute to restaurant publicist Joan Hisaoka, a cornerstone of the restaurant community who passed away last month. In her honor, the Restaurant Association presented the first annual Joan Hisaoka Associate Member of the Year award to Foodservice Monthly, the mid-Atlantic restaurant trade publication.

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