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Finding a dining companion for BLT Prime by David Burke inside Donald Trump’s new D.C. hotel is like begging a friend to drive you to the airport, or worse, to help you move. And the reservation was for Oct. 3—four days before a leaked tape showed the Republican presidential nominee making vile remarks about women to Billy Bush.
But Brian Johnson was down. In fact, he had visited the hotel’s Benjamin Bar & Lounge a handful of times before joining me in the nearly empty dining room perched above the hotel’s luxe lobby that dazzles with chandeliers and looks like it could be the set for one of the scenester parties that always cap off an episode of Gossip Girl.
Washingtonians might know Johnson from his food and lifestyle blog HungryLobbyist.com. Created in 2012, the blog has 12 contributing writers and 10,100 Instagram followers. Johnson, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science and two master’s degrees (international trade/economic development and public administration), is also the director of federal affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, where he tackles tax and trade issues.
“As a food blogger and prolific Instagrammer, I got so much crap from people on Instagram for posting a picture that I was here,” Johnson says of his initial visit. “If Hillary Clinton opens a restaurant, I’m going to eat there. If Bernie Sanders opens a restaurant, I’m going to eat there. You eat at places that are new and this place is new.”
Over drinks in the Benjamin Bar & Lounge, we talk politics—much like the smattering of other imbibers in the exposed lobby bar. Because I subscribe to wearing the band’s T-shirt to the concert, I order Trump’s sparkling wine—a 2009 blanc de blancs from Monticello, Virginia, for $16 a glass. It lacks complexity and the bubbles are big and fat instead of delicate and tongue tickling. My companion drinks pinot noir.
In the primary phase, Marco Rubio, not Trump, was Johnson’s candidate. Johnson believes the Florida senator was in the race for the right reasons and he aligns with Rubio’s family values, policies on tax reform and immigration, and general outlook that a limited federal government is best. He even volunteered for Rubio’s campaign.
Socially, Johnson isn’t quite so conservative. For example, he recently co-hosted an event headlined by Caitlyn Jenner that also included Grover Norquist, who founded Americans for Tax Reform, where Johnson previously worked.
“It was for conservatives who support the LGBTQ community,” Johnson says. “These folks believe that government should not be involved with the marriage issue. If an institution in a state wants to marry individuals of the same sex and they want to file paperwork with the IRS, they should be seen as married.”
At this point my glass is empty. The telepathic bartender heads over, but only to play a game. “Look over there,” he says. I turn, wondering if I will get a glimpse of the nominee himself padding through the lobby. I turn back and see that my glass of underwhelming bubbly has been refilled. A nice gesture I would have insisted on paying for, only I didn’t have to because it’s right there on the bill.
Feeling swindled, the political discussion heats up as we head up to dinner. I ask Johnson what he plans to do in November. “Not sure yet,” he says. Without his preferred candidate in the race, the North Carolina native finds himself in a confusing position, even characterizing the 2016 election cycle as “a dumpster fire behind a word salad restaurant.”
Despite being overseen by culinary heavyweight David Burke and helmed by BLT Steak veteran and executive chef Marc Hennessy, dinner at BLT Prime is as perplexing as the race for the White House.
In what may have been his swiftest “First Bite” to date, Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema had kind words for the restaurant, and Yelp reviewers have bestowed it with an average rating of four stars. I’m not a restaurant critic, but since many D.C. diners are likely to take a pass on this newcomer, I’ll share some observations.
After being seated in the restaurant reminiscent of Paris Las Vegas—because of its positioning between metal beams that look like they could be the base of a faux Eiffel Tower—Johnson requests a dark napkin to avoid showing lint on the dark pants that make up the bottom half of a very spiffy suit. The dark napkin never materializes.
After perusing a wine list he deems amateurish, Johnson then asks for a Bulleit Rye Whiskey. “As much as you can get away with on one ice cube,” he tells our server. The brown liquor makes its way to our table around the same time we observe a foursome being seated. They request a booth. “Those are for larger parties. You can’t sit there,” they’re told before being seated at a less glamorous spot. No one sat in the booths the entire time we were at the restaurant.
The menu spans raw bar selections, ocean apps, farm apps, ocean meats, farm meats, steak cuts, and sides. “Appetizers” and “entrees” don’t seem to suffice as menu headings. Maybe it’s because we’re both borderline millennials, but we make a meal out of smaller portions instead of going for one of the big cuts of meat that benefit from the restaurant’s signature practice of aging steaks surrounded by Himalayan pink sea salt.
We immediately discover a cool menu hack. If you hastily order the “Clothesline Candied Bacon” and a truffled fried egg from the “double down” section on the menu, they’ll arrive at the same time as BLT Prime’s hot, buttery popovers, allowing diners to make bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches.
But take note: It’s $16 bacon. It arrives, as suggested, hanging from a clothesline with a pickle, lemon wedge, and gold gilded scissors. Confusion sets in because no one explains what the sheers are for. Is there a bris no one told us about? Probably not since there’s bacon involved.
The slabs are cold, and the clothesline bacon isn’t the only dish with temperature issues. The fries ($16) are also cold. What’s more bewildering is that they’re called “Hipster Fries.” Perhaps the only thing less hipster than modifying a food with “hipster” is a booze cruise.
The chilly, limp fries are said to be studded with Parmesan, shishito peppers, and beef jerky, though the parmesan is imperceptible and there’s only one oily shishito pepper on top of the pile. The beef jerky is the only part worth excavating. Rather than taking to the web to bitch, we tell our pleasant-enough server, who removes the uneaten fries from our bill.
The steak tartare ($21) and “dressed oysters” ($25 for five) are also base hits instead of home runs. The oysters come out lightning fast, which raises the question of when they were shucked? Especially since each bivalve is ornately decorated with a lobe of uni, a teepee of shredded Virginia ham, and a thimble of pineapple mignonette. The combination of toppers actually works, but it doesn’t mitigate the oysters’ lack of freshness and the unwanted bits of shell.
Arriving next is the steak tartare—a dish that proves there is such thing as too much decadance: An unattractive, two-inch thick round of cold, veiny foie gras shields the tartare from our forks. Also on the plate: fried grapes (cold) held down by dollops of mustard and crisps coated in so many almonds they look like porcupines. We don’t touch the crisps.
A dish that we’d both come back for is the Maryland crab “cake & coffee.” It pairs a cup of “crabbucino” that tastes pleasantly like she-crab soup with a tin of warm crab meat with big, luscious lumps. After scraping for every last bit, we evaluate the evening over petit fours—because what’s more distorted than talking about the future of the country over miniature desserts?
“I don’t think you can deny that it’s pretty in here,” Johnson says, adding that it helps that the hotel is centrally located between the White House and Capitol Hill. “I think it’s nice in here. Whether people continue to come back beats the hell out of me, but convenience is key.” He questions how much Trump’s brand will impact business, though cost could prove more prohibitive than the hotel’s name.
Checking in with Johnson amid the Trump sex scandals, he says, “I do vote based on tax policy for the most part, and therefore personally and historically that tends to have me favoring the GOP nominee over the Democrat nominee on the national and local levels.” But, he concedes, “It’s hard to be a Republican in these times.”
Johnson declined to talk about specific policies as they relate to the two presidential candidates, but there’s at least one area where he doesn’t see eye to eye with Trump. “I would disagree with anyone who doesn’t like the dining scene in D.C.,” Johnson says.
In a recently published taped deposition, Trump projected that liberals would dine at his restaurant because of the lack of worthy competition: “They want to go to a great restaurant. … There aren’t that many in Washington, believe me. There aren’t that many in Washington, as you know.”CP
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.