Some of you wine-sipping snobs might hate this comparison, but high-end restaurants are like football teams. They recruit the best talent they can afford; they develop a loyal fan base that supports the restaurant, even through lean times; they routinely lose their best performers to the competition. Of course, you could make a strong argument that the last scenario is what separates the fine-dining temples from their pigskin-toting brethren.
Think about it. When Green Bay lost Favre, how many Packer loyalists suddenly became Jet fans? But when a chef splits from a restaurant to work in another kitchen (or to start his own), his followers will often make the same move. I’m thinking specifically of the quicksilver toque Peter Chang, the Szechwan master whose inexplicable wanderings practically had his devoted pack consulting a Ouija board to determine his whereabouts.
But what happens to a restaurant that loses an all-star caliber performer? How does it plug that position and continue its forward momentum? That’s what I wanted to find out with meals at a pair of places that have, in some form or another, suffered seismic shifts in the kitchen in recent months.
Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert, located inside the Ritz-Carlton in the West End, was too young and probably too corporate to have any real groupies, but Ripert’s hand-picked lieutenant, chef de cuisine Leonardo Marino, did have his champions, including me (Young & Hungry, “Pardon the Intrusion,” 3/5/08).The Washingtonian, in its three-star review in September, chimed in: “When Westend Bistro opened last fall, celebrity chef Ripert was the draw for many diners. Increasingly, Marino is why they keep coming back.”
But I also got the sense, early on, that Marino was slippery. When I tried to find out which ingredients in Westend’s Eastern Market salad were purchased from the Capitol Hill market, Marino would never answer the question, no matter how directly or angrily I phrased it in our e-mail exchange. The best he would do is say that he always tries to source his ingredients from local markets when possible.
I didn’t hold that evasion against Marino in my review, which would have been petty, but since his resignation from Westend, I’ve thought about whether the chef was toeing the company line with his response or just being a dick. I don’t have any special insight on why the chef walked out the door in September, but Ripert told the Washington Post that Marino and at least one sous chef were suspended for behavioral problems. “Talent doesn’t excuse misbehavior and arrogance,” Ripert opined to Tom Sietsema.
The new guy in charge at Westend is Joe Palma, a self-taught toque who’s worked with some of the finest chefs in the country, including Ripert at Le Bernardin, Michel Richard at Citronelle, and Yannick Cam at La Paradou. It’s his Washington experience that intrigues me, less for Palma’s actual hands-on work, than for what his D.C. stint could mean in a larger cultural context: perhaps that Ripert felt it important to have someone who understands the market running his District outpost, as if no outsider could truly grasp the stately puffery of our town. It’s a theory.
During a phone interview, Palma says he’s been given plenty of latitude to play with Marino’s menu—or as much latitude as any chef can claim when he has to run changes by at least three different people, including Ripert and the general manager of the Ritz. Still, Palma’s done a top-to-bottom evaluation of the old menu, frequently tweaking recipes, occasionally adding new ones, and sometimes tossing out dishes altogether. One dish I tasted under Palma’s watch—a roast chicken with sausage—has just received the heave-ho, the chef explains. The move befuddles me; the bird was crispy on the outside, succulent to the bone, and dripping with the kind of deep chicken flavor that you thought Tyson had bred out of these creatures long ago.
As I wax poetic about the chicken, Palma quickly informs me the bird will still be available as a special on occasion, which provides some cold comfort. The dish was the best thing I sampled during my single spot check of Westend. The braised short ribs, which Palma does coq au vin–style in red wine and chicken stock, were moist but not tender enough for my tastes; nor were they deeply infused with garlic and other aromatics. I did admire, though, Palma’s ability to lighten Marino’s once-leaden mini pork pies, which now boast a zestier filling that needs little whole-grain mustard to cut its richness.
Palma described to me two dishes that he’s added to the menu, a Spanish-style shrimp and grits and a stuffed quail, both of which make me want to run back to West End for another round. I have a feeling I’m not going to miss Marino much.
In a weird, back-handed way, I wish I could say the same thing about John Wabeck. In August, Wabeck left not just New Heights, that Woodley Park institution, but the cooking profession altogether. Waybeck will be the wine director at Inox, the modern American restaurant that chefs Jonathan Krinn and Jon Mathieson plan to open in Tysons Corner. Wabeck’s replacement at New Heights is Logan Cox, who most recently worked the stoves at the Woodlands Resort & Inn in Summerville, S.C. At this point in his career, Cox isn’t worthy to lick Wabeck’s tasting spoon.
Cox did display a flash of brilliance with a first course of butternut squash soup. The chef garnished this fall mainstay with almond “polenta,” dates, and these tiny preserved mushrooms that gave the sweet, silken purée (think pumpkin-pie filling) a welcome hit of sour. Even Cox’s appetizer of duck confit proved the kitchen could master the dish, turning out a succulent, fragrant leg with nicely crisped skin.
But things quickly turned sour with the entrees. The dishes themselves were gorgeous; Cox clearly has a love for an eye-pleasing plate. My small portion of crispy striped bass (otherwise known as the decidedly un-sexy rockfish) was framed with a Joan Miro–like display of vegetables, panisse, and mussels, not to mention a Jackson Pollack–like smear of smoked-onion sauce. The plate was almost too pretty to eat. After my first bites, I wish I would have glazed the entrée and hung it on the wall instead. The smoked-onion sauce had a dirty, charred, off-putting flavor, as if the gravy had been deglazed in a pan with 1,000-year-old fond in it. The Pauly Shore of the kitchen, the sauce ruined everything it touched.
My dining companion’s grilled pork loin followed a similar pattern, beautiful on the plate, not so nice on the palate. The sliced loin was presented like a line of fallen dominos, surrounded on all sides by a golden, tart-apple soubise and a twin-toned bacon-caramel sauce. The flavors got along famously until they disappeared down your throat, leaving you to worry a round of chewy pork in your mouth. On closer inspection, it was obvious that the kitchen had not sufficiently rendered the thin layer of fat before tossing the loin into the oven.
Our service at New Heights echoed the kitchen’s performance in one key way: It was polished on the surface and lacking in fundamentals underneath. As we, the last two people in the dining room, finished our meal, we waited and waited and waited for our check. I’m not sure how much more bored we could have looked. The tableside snub left me feeling nostalgic for New Heights’ previous incarnation, when the service and the chef rarely disappointed their loyal followers.
Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert, 1190 22nd St. NW, (202) 974-4900
New Heights, 2317 Calvert St. NW, (202) 234-4100
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