August 28, 2010
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Located in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Washington, DC and established by celebrity chef Eric Ripert, Westend Bistro would be more than entitled to boast about its impressive pedigree. As if these basic facts of its existence are not enough to impress, it features an elegant, dimly lit dining room in which even informal dinners between friends seem to take on the look of an extra special occasion. This is a restaurant whose website prominently features a quote from Ripert, scrolling slowly over a white page and set to a jazzy, bass-driven soundtrack: “A cook and a chef are differententities. ‘Chef’ is a title, but when you are a cook, that is who you are. It’s your spine in your soul.”
My initial mild skepticism dissolved immediately as Westend Bistro Sous Chef Adam Barnett, handed me a menu and implored me to ask him about any dish that struck my fancy. “We like to keep it casual around here,” he told me, with no obvious irony in his voice.
I had the good fortune of being seated at one of the four chairs situated in an area deemed “The Pass”. The Pass is reserved for pairs, where couples can dine while overlooking the kitchen. The front row seating gives an intimate look at the chef at work while he and his youngish team of chefs prepare each dish. At one point, I watched as a member of the squad placed each individually roasted vegetable in a perfectly formed pattern. With the precision of an artist laying tiles for a mosaic, he created the Foggy Bottom Market Salad ($12), a dish whose mundane menu description (“market vegetables, truffle vinaigrette”) somehow falls short of the exquisite dish in reality.
Presiding over the kitchen, calling out each order and, when necessary, putting those final shallots on the tuna carpaccio, is Barnett, a chef whom I’d also venture to describe as a true cook in both spine and soul. But perhaps more importantly, Barnett is just a guy, comfortable explaining his preparation for softshell crabs, comfortable cracking a joke. This, of course,is crucial for any guests sitting at The Pass, who will find him an ideal guide for the evening. It is equally important to anyone enjoying a meal at Westend Bistro that every ounce of the charm trickles down to every detail. The delicate balance of serious and casual is embodied in both Barnett and in head chef Joe Palma.
Chef Eric Ripert truly made a name for himself as a seafood chef; his restaurant, Le Bernardin, in Manhattan is reminiscent of a luxury ocean liner, and is considered one of the finest restaurants the city has to offer. It would be logical to assume that seafood is likewise the highlight at Westend Bistro. The well-balanced menu in fact has highlights in a variety of areas, but the seafood delights are likely a cornerstone of the menu. The razor-thin Tuna Carpaccio ($16) covers an entire large plate and is dotted with chives and shallots and doused in olive oil. Another light appetizer with a big flavor is the Tomato Consomme ($12), which Barnett promised would be my “tomato fix for the summer.” Westend Bistro takes its tomatoes seriously. This light soup is comprised of two different types of tomatoes — from distributers in West Virginia and in western Pennsylvania. However, it is the basil, with the freshness of having been picked moments ago, that nearly steals the show.
True to Ripert’s reputation for seafood, fish is heavily featured at Westend Bistro. The flavorful Skate Provencal ($28) is served in the middle of circle of baby artichokes, baby tomatoes and black olives. The Shrimp and Grits ($26), peppered with garlic, scallion and — of all things — chorizo, is both creamy and spicy, and the bits of sausage are a welcomed addition both to the dish’s texture and flavor. One of the most intriguing and tastiest entrees on the menu is the BBQ Duck ($29), which is served with a side of pickled watermelon and a sauce based in none other than good old French’s mustard. The final product is at once an innovative and unpretentious blend. Barnett half-jokingly recommended that I pair the dish with an unpretentious glass of Milwaukee’s Best. The dish’s authentic barbecue flavor would also have paired nicely with a soft wine.
As with the appetizers, when it comes to deserts ($9 each) at Westend Bistro, light is best. This is to take nothing away from the taste of the Warm Chocolate Cake, which is rich and moist, but a regular meal in its own right. More manageable is the Strawberry Shortcake, composed of cornbread madeleines, strawberries and a dollop of creme fraiche. Like so much of the food on the menu, this desert is elegant, but approachable. The same compliment can be paid to the staff at Westend Bistro and to the restaurant itself.