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Media dinners are as common as calamari—and just about as exciting to food writers. Some won’t even bother with the glad-handing events unless they’re in desperate need of a free bite (like me) or looking to dodge an editor (never me!). The December press luncheon at the Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert, however, was altogether different.
I saw journalists at this meal who had never before darkened the same media event as me. They had presumably arrived for the identical reason I had: to grab some face time with D.C.’s celebrity chef du jour, the French-born Ripert, whom the Ritz-Carlton had contracted to open this moody bistro on its West End property. But after the lunch, a truly bizarre thing happened. We were all presented with a Polaroid snapshot, taken earlier and now framed in gingerbread, of Ripert beaming next to us. Such is the state of the local dining scene, I thought: A celebrated chef strolls into town, and even the journalists pose for pictures with him. We’re all slaves to fame.
Ripert, of course, is just the latest royal carpetbagger to start firing up stoves in our cash-rich District. Laurent Tourondel (BLT Steak) and Wolfgang Puck (The Source) beat him to the punch. For the Ritz, contracting Ripert was the equivalent of bringing in a faith healer—the hotel chain’s previous restaurant was on life support until Ripert laid hands on it.
The Ritz folks were perhaps looking for a Dean Fearing-like miracle at their new bistro. Fearing, the grandpappy of Southwestern cooking, opened his self-named restaurant at the new Ritz in Dallas last August, and the place quickly started earning $1 million a month, says Vivian Deuschl, the chain’s corporate vice president of public relations. To understand the full impact of that kind of revenue, you have to look at how the Ritz’s old-school restaurants performed prior to the age of star toques. Before Ripert, Fearing, and even chefs like Fabio Trabocchi at Maestro, guests would routinely exit the hotels in search of quality eats, says Deuschl, sometimes leaving the Ritz’s white-tablecloth restaurants virtually empty.
The chain doesn’t have that problem with the boisterous Westend, a decidedly unstuffy space that targets diners who prefer to drip hamburger grease on their Levis, not split open a beef Wellington with Christofle sterling flatware. The bistro’s downsized ambitions may suit the burger and cocktails crowd, but Westend didn’t immediately please fans of Ripert’s more sophisticated work at Le Bernardin in Manhattan, where the chef has been a New York Times four-star performer since the early ’90s. The area gastro-snobs feverishly lit up the boards about the prole look of Ripert’s D.C. menu.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem with fame. It makes you a sizable target, no matter how many times you’ve posed with fans and food writers for souvenir snaps. I have to give Ripert some credit for so brazenly hogging the spotlight from our local, long-suffering chefs. It takes a healthy ego to stamp your name brand all over someone else’s market.
Perhaps you think I’m leading up to a hatchet job on Westend? That I’ll slap around Ripert for the sake of the home team? If only life were that fair. The fact is, Westend Bistro is a terrific place to park your pampered butt, assuming, that is, you can find a seat for it.
Ripert has installed Leonardo Marino, a loyal Le Bernardin foot soldier, as chef de cuisine at Westend, and I have no major complaints after eating here four times following that original media lunch. My biggest gripe is the salmon rillettes on the appetizer menu. This bowl of creamy spread, prepared with house-made mayo, seems to favor fresh salmon over smoked; its taste is clean, pure, and, about three bites in, utterly tedious.
You can find better ways to start a meal here, like the potato and leek soup. The hearty purée provides different delights in every spoonful. One slurp gives you a smooth shot of salty spuds, another ferries the sweet taste of leeks, another provides a hit of the oil-like arugula purée. I actually ordered the soup twice, each time putting down my spoon with the kind of longing that only comes after you’ve finished a truly great dish. The mini pork pies, by contrast, are far too rich by themselves but prove to be a good, submissive partner to the dominating, nasal-clearing Maille Dijon mustard.
I appreciate Westend’s small attempts to blend in with the locals. I’m not talking about the obvious inclusion of the Chesapeake Bay stew (which I didn’t try) but about the Eastern Market salad, a bountiful bowl of mesclun greens and some of the freshest, most colorful produce pulled from…well, maybe the market on Capitol Hill. (I couldn’t get a straight answer on that from Marino.) Of course, seafood is Ripert’s—and by extension Marino’s—specialty, and the Westend menu overflows with fish and shellfish. Don’t miss the tiny diced calamari squares with rémoulade sauce. They’re so tender and sweet (and, to be honest, difficult to spike with a fork) that even jaded food writers can appreciate them.
Even better is the fish sandwich, a thick, lightly fried patty of striped bass slathered with saffron aioli and topped with fennel shavings and oven-roasted tomatoes. The whole sloppy thing is at once crispy, sweet, tart, and creamy. I dare to say it’s a better overall sandwich than the already-overhyped Westend “classic burger,” which is still damn fine. As the name indicates, the hamburger doesn’t aspire to join the truffled-cheese-and-tuile set of ground-beef sandwiches. It’s merely content to satisfy you with a well-cooked patty oozing red juices.
In that way, Westend is a throwback bistro. It’s not designed to dazzle you with clever riffs on foie-gras pâté or even chili, like they do at Central Michel Richard. The cooks here simply take quality ingredients and cook the hell out of them. They do it with their minimalist flatiron steak, just a thin cut of chuck grilled to perfection, and with their oven-poached skate wing served with a rich, tart brown-butter sauce.
The main problem with cooking this good—particularly in a downtown playpen branded by Eric Ripert—is that it attracts all kinds, including those who can really test your patience and your palate. As I sat at the bar one night eating that delicious skate, a middle-aged Dolly Parton wannabe pulled up a stool next to me. The air around her bleached-blond hair reeked of more perfume than a meeting of the Ladies Auxiliary of the North Texas VFW. What was I going to do? Tell the woman she smelled like fresh-scent fabric softener and to get far, far away from my food? Nope, I just suffered in silence—in the best new bistro in town.
Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert, 1190 22nd St. NW, (202) 974-4900.
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