A sign of the times: When the lid of a porcelain cloche is dramatically lifted at Brabo by Robert Wiedmaier, it doesn’t unveil a slab of foie gras or a scattering of Alba truffles. It shows off a stout, curried duck sausage.
If any sausage deserves such treatment, it’s one made by Wiedmaier, the brawny classicist behind the downtown DC restaurants Marcel’s (home of the city’s best boudin blanc) and Brasserie Beck (home of the city’s best lamb sausage). And it carries a message: Old-guard elegance, even in a slow economy, isn’t something Wiedmaier is willing to compromise on.
Still, he’s had to make a few concessions for his latest project. On a single block of King Street in Old Town Alexandria, he’s opened an upscale dining room; a low-key, no-reservations “tasting room” next door; and a high-end butcher shop. Helping him pull it off is the Kimpton Group, which owns the Lorien Hotel that anchors the new places. A boutique property that offers bath butlers and pet massages and a Harley-driving chef who’s such a stickler for tradition that you wouldn’t be surprised to see Escoffier’s recipe for Madeira sauce tattooed on his forearm—could there be a more unlikely alliance?
The results are, predictably, mixed.
The most ambitious—and expensive—of the three places is Brabo by Robert Wiedmaier, a sunset-hued dining room with cork walls and starchy linens. Curiously, the restaurant to which Wiedmaier has attached his name is the one where you’re least likely to feel his robust presence. It strives for a sleek urbanity, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is a generic hotel restaurant all the way. One evening, the banquette next to me was presided over by a pharmaceutical rep with a laptop perched next to his butter knife.
The menu doesn’t add much life. Sure, there are a few hits from the Wiedmaier repertoire—the fries with three mayos served at Beck, the Gruyère-sprinkled gratin of mussels from Marcel’s—but much of the cooking seems tuned to eaters who want the usual Modern American hotel fare. Caesar salad? Check. Bistro steak? Requisite chocolate dessert? Done.
The most satisfying dishes are the most humble: minestrone rich with ham-hocky smokiness, classic ratatouille, a 24-hour-braised pork shank, that curried sausage. The kitchen isn’t as successful with more delicate preparations (a perfectly seared duck breast with orange-scented rice and a lemony goat-cheese terrine are exceptions).
An appetizer of seared scallops with salsify and chanterelles was marred one night by relentless saltiness and overbuttering. An artfully plated duo of smoked trout featured a gritty mousse and a few hunks of applewood-smoked fish. A wide wing of skate looked gently fried, but the flesh was tough and the dish—with its pale butter sauce and sparse helping of candy-stripe beets—was beyond bland. An entrée of ahi tuna in a thick pepper crust served on a clumpy bed of julienned red peppers emerged a total mess.
If you stay for dessert though, look toward the elegant, not the homey: The Belgian waffle is a dried-out flop. The lemon tart, topped with a custardy Chiboust and paired with candied cilantro, is fabulous.
A far more interesting place to eat is the Tasting Room, where the Van Morrison is turned up loud, most dishes are meant for sharing, and nothing costs more than $15.
It’s home to a wonderfully peppery onion soup made with Spanish and red onions, chives, and scallions and threaded with Gruyère. Flatbreads, cooked in the wood-burning oven and brushed with garlic-and-chili oil, are scattered with such terrific toppings as duck confit, its richness cut with bitter radicchio, or mussels with béchamel.
You’ll want second and third helpings of the excellent, crusty Palladin bread—named for the late, legendary DC chef Jean-Louis Palladin—both for its accompanying butter, sprinkled with Maldon and red Hawaiian salts, and to sop up the creamy, chorizo-spiked sauce that blankets a generous skillet of Prince Edward Island mussels. One caveat: The place is about as tiny as a Dupont Circle studio apartment, so you might have to down a few tripels at the bar before landing a table.
Given the money the Kimpton Group has sunk into this project and Wiedmaier’s impressive pedigree, it’s surprising that the very best thing in the chef’s new mini-empire is his shop called the Butcher’s Block.
The shelves hold items both utilitarian ($4.50-a-pound pork belly) and over the top (a $29 can of truffle juice), and there’s a lot in between for the serious home cook: veal burgers, heritage rib eyes, even sous vide pork shanks. There’s also an impressive selection of affordable wines, so no need for a trip to the liquor store before dinner.
You can get a mean sandwich, too, such as turkey with onion marmalade and avocado or rare roast beef with creamy Chimay cheese. And if you can exercise some self-restraint amid the gourmet stocking stuffers—that Palm Island black salt is bound to come in handy sometime, right?—you’ll escape with a tab that doesn’t hit your panic button. Best of all, it feels like Wiedmaier all the way.
This appeared in the July, 2009 issue of The Washingtonian.