Young and Hungry

T-Bone of Contention: Bickering Over “Boutique Steak House” Lost Society

Lost Society: Bickering Over D.C.'s "Boutique Steak House"

“One day,” my dining companion boldly predicted, “all of 14th Street will look like this.”

We’re sitting on plush chairs by a velvety-curtained window in Lost Society, overlooking the bus stop outside the District’s Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center—a lingering monument to the brutalist era of urban renewal. Like much of the surrounding neighborhood, it’s gotten a recent face-lift.

On the streets below, crowds are loudly gathering outside the block’s other restaurants: Marvin, BlackByrd Warehouse—and, of course, Subway, which is located directly beneath our feet. Our seats are probably hovering somewhere over the sandwich counter. Tap twice for extra mayo!

The location, one level above a fast-food chain, is apt. Up here, the décor (think upscale-sports-bar-meets-downtown-brothel) and the menu (steak and fish) are a tad more sophisticated than at the ground-level sandwich franchise. But they’re nowhere near as stuffy or pricey as the furnishings and fare at some of the city’s finer dining establishments.

That makes sense, because this is midrange dining with middling quality control. An appetizer of stuffed lobster arrives on the half-shell, sprinkled with bread crumbs, followed by a fatty slab of pork belly, and served with sautéed spinach and big mealy yellow beans. The presentation is pretty if the execution is imperfect: The lobster comes out lukewarm, almost chilly. Frankly, I didn’t realize the stuffed variety could be done “Maine-style,” like some frosty claws on a food-truck roll.

The crispy top layer of the pork is tough to cut, much less chew, like a pork rind infused with superglue. The usually tender meat is supposed to melt in your mouth, not stick to your teeth.

Lost Society: Bickering Over D.C.'s "Boutique Steak House"

On this night, a tempura-style soft-shell crab is the saving grace of the openers. Lightly coated in a beer batter, the crab is tender and delicious, served atop a colorful, fresh-tasting succotash.

Of course, we didn’t come to Lost Society for some measly appetizers. We came for the meaty entrées—the main attraction at a modishly designed new restaurant and lounge that’s out to re-envision the traditional steak-house menu for a younger, less buttoned-up crowd.

A nonstuffy highlight: filet mignon, rarely a steak connoisseur’s first choice of cuts. At Lost Society, chef Joseph Evans knows how to clean it up nice—slather that broiled 10-ounce hunk with butter; in this case, a creamy spread instilled with parsley, tarragon, and roasted bone marrow. “I just think it adds a nice richness to [the steak],” Evans, a 28-year-old Smith & Wollensky veteran, says of the last ingredient.

Lost Society: Bickering Over D.C.'s "Boutique Steak House"

When Lost Society opened in early July, it billed itself as D.C.’s first “boutique steak house.” The curious descriptor was seemingly intended to bolster the venue’s cool cred the same way it does for fashion-conscious boutique hotels that are supposed to be more chic than plain old Hiltons.

That may be easier said than done. There’s no agreed-upon recipe for making a steak house hip—especially in a city only now shedding its steak-and-potatoes dining reputation. As it happens, the question has divided the restaurant’s owners: A lot of the most compelling action during Lost Society’s brief run has involved their pitched legal battle with one another in D.C. Superior Court.

One partner, Aman Ayoubi, proprietor of neighboring restaurant and lounge Local 16, among other venues, filed suit in May, alleging various breaches of contract on the part of the other co-owners, David Karim and Richard Vasey. Karim and Vasey, also partners in nearby Policy, counter-sued, charging Ayoubi with contract violations of his own.

The accusations are numerous. But according to court papers, the central beef boils down to this: Ayoubi, who claimed ultimate authority over the establishment’s food choices, wanted to hire a different chef, identified in court documents as John Maher, formerly of San Francisco’s Cav wine bar and an alum of Thomas Keller’s illustrious French Laundry.

Ayoubi has accused Vasey, whom he described in court papers as more of a construction guy, of usurping his role, terminating Maher “after the chef informed Vasey that he would not ‘copy’ the menus of two Philadelphia restaurants Vasey liked,” and later hiring a new chef, Evans, without Ayoubi’s input or approval.

Vasey, meanwhile, charges Ayoubi with having “failed to identify acceptable candidates for the chef’s position.” His court filings mention a tasting of menu options selected by Ayoubi’s hand-picked chef in late 2010, which the other owners were less than thrilled by: “Unfortunately, the majority of the [co-owners]...were not in agreement with Mr. Maher’s food concept and/or food palate.”

Litigation is ongoing.

As the owners try to hammer out their differences in the courtroom, Evans tries to make the concept work in the kitchen.

Lost Society: Bickering Over D.C.'s "Boutique Steak House"

In the six weeks since the place opened, both the patrons and the chef himself are beginning to better understand just what the term “boutique steak house” truly means.

For one thing, it implies a far cozier kitchen than the standard steak house’s. “I’m running off of one broiler, four burners, and one 12-inch flat-top,” says Evans, who is more accustomed to having a roomier cooking space. The kitchen area at Smith & Wollensky, he estimates, may be bigger than Lost Society in its entirety.

And another thing: It’s less about the beef than even Evans expected. The supposed steak house’s menu offers just four cuts: the 10-ounce filet, a 14-ounce bone-in strip, a 20-ounce bone-in rib eye, and a 20-ounce T-bone. By comparison, the dinner menu at Smith & Wollensky includes six styles of filet alone, plus 10 other types of steak. Evans had originally included a prime rib and a boneless strip, but those turned out to be “not big sellers,” he says.

The price point is another big difference: Not a single cut of meat costs as much as the cheapest cut at Evans’ former steak house.

Among Evans’ current roster of steaks, the strip is perhaps the most obvious straggler. Mine arrived nicely charred along its bony edge but coated in far too much blue cheese—three substantial dollops of the stuff, overpowering both the flavor of the meat and its accompanying cognac sauce.

Far better choices would be the rib eye, sauced with a comparatively lighter blend of mascarpone, Gruyère, crème fraîche, and chanterelle mushrooms, and the T-bone, topped with the same bone-marrow-enhanced butter as Evans’ filet.

Lost Society: Bickering Over D.C.'s "Boutique Steak House"

Tellingly, the chef also got rid of his steak tartare appetizer, which he described as an Asian-style twist on the typical Dijon-and-Worcestershire recipe. Customers didn’t fully appreciate it, so it was swapped out in favor of a fresh-tuna version that might have been my favorite dish of all my visits.

The chilled fish comes seasoned in a zesty sauce incorporating Korean chili paste and is served atop slices of pickled watermelon rind. The tuna is a far brighter tasting option than the oysters, a paltry four of them plated colorfully atop a plate of seaweed but each regretfully drown in mignonette.

Seafood, it turns out, is a bigger component to this boutique brand of beef emporium. “We’re selling almost 50 percent fish,” reports Evans.

Lost Society: Bickering Over D.C.'s "Boutique Steak House"

Evans’ blackened shrimp with wild-rice risotto is another standout in this category, more so than the too-mild grouper. Evans says he sources his shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, seasoning them with his own blend of cayenne, chili powder, chipotle powder, ancho powder, onions, garlic, and thyme, among other ingredients. The spicy shrimps are tempered nicely by the creamy risotto, a complementary combo that I describe as a sort of Yankee spin on shrimp ’n’ grits—provided the chef, a Texas native, wouldn’t be offended by the characterization.

One more area in which Evans would be wise to tinker is his sides. Neither the mac ’n’ cheese nor the potato gratin made much of an impression. And my friends and I barely touched the thinly sliced and breaded zucchini ribbons, which smacked of too much salt.

The lone exception seems to be the mushrooms, sautéed in garlic, shallots, and oil and then finished with a few pats of, yes, the very same bone-marrow butter used on Evans’ steaks.

Maybe that’s the key to making your boutique steak house a success: bone-marrow butter on everything.

Photos by Matt Dunn

Lost Society, 2001 14th St. NW, (202) 618-8868

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

  • Pingback: Lingering Thoughts on Lost Society: Try This, Not That Edition - Young & Hungry - Washington City Paper

  • Not Satisfied

    Lost society is probably the worst bar I've been to in DC & I'm a college student... I've been to some pretty shitty bars.

    I went last night for my best friend's birthday, she called ahead for a table. I got there 1st & found out they had lost our reservation. They were busy so I took it all in stride, put my name on the wait list & decided to wait by the bar with friends.

    Went up stairs to the overly crowded bar & ordered over priced drinks. Then I got a call, asking me if everyone was going to eat I simply replied with I don't know and they proceeded to cancel my reservations. I had to be put on the wait list AGAIN. This time my friend went to check on the progress of our table. The hostess supposedly said we had changed our reservations for a table of SIX to a table of THREE, but yet there were 6 of us. So we had to wait AGAIN. My friends & I decided to close our tab, go and stand by the hostess area to make sure we got the table this time (remember when I closed the tab we split our bar tab between 5 people, or at least that's what I thought).

    So we wait. and wait. and wait and watch a couple get into a heated argument. Finally, the ladies inform us they are working on a section for us and we should be seated shortly. Well we wait. and wait. Then the lady comes to us again and tells us we can wait for the section she showed us earlier or get a better table that would be perfect for our party of 6 and will probably be open before the other option. We agree and wait. and wait. and wait. About an hour and half later we decide to not waste any more time waiting and we defiantly didn't want to spend any more money there.

    This morning i woke up prepared to go grocery shopping and something told me to check my bank account. It seems that Lost Society charged my card not only for the split check price but also the ENTIRE bar tab of me & FIVE other friends.

    i called my bank and they said to call the bar and get them to call my bank & reverse the charges. I called Lost Society, not once, not twice... but four times trying to reach Anna-Marie just to find out she'll take my number and give me a call when she's free.

    To sum it up save your time and money, there are much better bars with a lot more space to actually have a good time on U street. Just walk right past it, do not go in or you'll lose money and get treated like shit but at least they will smile and use their P's & Q's as they are royally fucking you over.

  • Scott King

    Not really sure if the person above had ever heard of making a reservation on open table so he could get a confirmation number but we have eaten there numerous times and have not had any problems like they described. Maybe they should stick with areas like midtown bars like rumors. haha

    This place has done a pretty good job of having plenty of bartenders on there main level so you never have to wait for a cocktail. Though there dinning seating is not large by any means they seems to turn over there tables a few times a night and the upstairs bar area does get crowded but the patio is great for over flow and dining up there and feeling like you are in a more lively atmosphere. I definitely recommend this place. The 14th & U street area is starting to really get a good grip on better dining restaurants.

  • Pingback: D.C. Restaurant Pop-Ups Go Mainstream - Young & Hungry

  • Pingback: Pop Up? Pipe Down! | Sixteen Magazine

...