Steaks, Seafood, and a New Chef at National Harbor (Full Review)

“Would you like to sit inside or out?” the hostess at Moon Bay Coastal Cuisine asks, pointing to tables overlooking a gurgling creek with a footbridge. That wouldn’t be so odd a question if we weren’t inside a glass bubble.

Welcome to National Harbor’s Gaylord National Resort, a conference center and megahotel that—in the tradition of the Google campus, The Truman Show, and Las Vegas casinos—wants you to believe that everything you could ever want is right here.

At the Gaylord, there’s a faux main street lined with trees and streetlights and a miniature version of Las Vegas’s Bellagio fountains, which light up in sync with, say, the Olympics theme. Spread throughout the small world are eight restaurants and bars, including a sports pub, a velvet-rope lounge, and an Italian market.

The two most ambitious places are the steakhouse and the seafood emporium—both with more than 220 seats—that are now home to Michael Harr, the innovative chef who led the kitchen at downtown DC’s Butterfield 9 until it closed two years ago. But can hiring a good local chef draw an audience beyond dental conventioneers?

Harr’s presence is most felt at Old Hickory Steakhouse, a lavishly decorated space with midnight-blue walls, gleaming convex mirrors, and palatial chandeliers. Every decorative detail has been considered: Even the leather dining chairs have throw pillows.

Old Hickory boasts a cigar menu and an impressive cheese program—the restaurant has its own aging cave—run by a “maître d’fromage,” who came from Cheesetique in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood.

But prices that are in line with some of DC’s top restaurants ratchet up expectations. The least expensive steak is $37, and sides cost $11 each. Want béarnaise sauce with that? That’ll be an extra five.

Next could be a luxuriously smooth chowder enveloping nubs of butter-poached lobster and sweet roasted corn or a generously portioned steak tartare topped with a runny quail egg. Those $5 gravy boats of bordelaise and béarnaise are technically perfect, and when you’re considering sides, get ready for some of the area’s best mac and cheese, oozy with chopped truffle, Gruyère, and Parmesan. You might wind things down with a winter-citrus panna cotta surrounded by candied kumquats and fennel, a lovely dessert that’s the antithesis of steakhouse excess.

But on the same table might land an oversalted and overtruffled—yes, it’s possible—tuna tartare served on a slab of even more salt. The steaks are fine—properly cooked, dry-aged black Angus—but other main courses run into problems.

Chicken at a high-end restaurant can show a chef’s skill or be shrugged off as cheapskate fare. Here it’s the latter. The $28 half bird arrived flabby-skinned on the outside and dry on the inside. The $42 rack of lamb translated into four chops with little meat, which was undercooked. Sea scallops were served with an uninspired celery-root slaw, and short ribs were more shreddy than tender.

Service is a bit of a gamble, too—one evening chatty and slow, another night four-star, the perfect mix of precision and candor (“Don’t get the onion soup—it’s made with chicken stock”). When the waiter set down a cup of espresso and a tiny bit splashed over the rim, it was immediately whisked away. “I won’t be able to sleep tonight,” he said over his shoulder.

Despite its slick and sexily lit dining room, things are more laid-back over at Moon Bay Coastal Cuisine, the other restaurant Harr oversees. Maybe it’s the Parrot Bay rum and Midori that spike the Flintstonian cocktails.

You won’t find a roster of 25 sustainable fish here or esoteric catches such as monchong and madai. But Harr has moved away from the fry-heavy menu of the previous chef. Gone are the battered oysters and fish and chips. Replacing them on a recent visit were a lemony crab cocktail served in a sundae glass, lightly bound crabcakes with hits of ginger, and well-crafted sushi rolls filled with shrimp tempura or barbecue eel. One bite of the green-chili grits is a reminder of why they were such a hit at Butterfield 9, and sides such as mashed sweet potatoes and lobster mac and cheese are also worthy of attention.

Harr has a knack for creating bright, bold flavors from unexpected combinations—say, lavender vinaigrette—so it’s a surprise when he holds back. Problems are most noticeable on the short list of entrées. Halibut showed up on the well-done side, and a seared cut of escolar got zero lift from its bed of creamed black rice. A Caesar salad was just as bland. The restaurant’s touted hot pot turned out to be a $27 pile of overcooked seafood in a lackluster curry broth.

Missteps aside, Harr is a talent worth watching. But while these restaurants might cast the aura of Disney-like perfection, they’re not there yet.

-July 2010

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.