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We Washingtonians like to think that our taste in food places us above the masses who line up for shopping-mall fare. But we eat at chain restaurants all the time, even when we’re not seated at Ruby Tuesday or the Olive Garden. Our preferred chains just go by another designation: “groups.”
Groups have penetrated every level of the regional restaurant experience, from Five Guys to Passion Food LLC, the concern that operates Acadiana, Ceiba, DC Coast, and TenPenh. With nearly $20 million in food and beverage sales in 2004, the Old Ebbitt Grill, one of 14 restaurants in the Clyde’s Restaurant Group, tops the revenue list. The past two restaurants covered by this column, Ceviche and Zengo, are new branches in groups run by Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld and chef Richard Sandoval, respectively.
The group concept takes business lessons from Franchising 101. By using multiple locations, groups can run several restaurants more efficiently under a centralized umbrella of marketing and administration, sharing vendors, market research, and advertising budgets. Like the bigger chains, the groups focus on a concept, develop a formula, and hit repeat. But unlike the bigger chains, the groups avoid the lowbrow stigma that keeps foodies away.
So it is no surprise that the Lebanese Taverna Group (LTG) decided to open a restaurant in Old Town Alexandria. LTG has been expanding rapidly in recent years and now operates seven downscale, family-friendly restaurants and cafes under the Lebanese Taverna brand between Tysons Corner and Annapolis. What is surprising is that its newest venture is not another Lebanese Taverna.
Instead, LTG left its comfort zone in favor of haute cuisine. To produce 100 King, LTG entered a partnership with classically trained Lyonnaise chef Denis Soriano, most recently with the Willard Room.
Evidence of groupthink abounds in the new space. Perhaps in an attempt to ease itself into the fine-dining market, 100 King is split into two levels. Downstairs seeks the raucous vibe of a “bistro scene,” according to LTG partner Henrik Suhr. The poured-concrete design makes it a modern bistro, one that offers a small-plates menu featuring the now-standard list of signature cocktails.
Upstairs sells an “elegant, formal atmosphere” and adds entrees to its menu. The space is beautiful—local designer/architect Frank Beltran returned the building to its original conception, with a double-height second floor featuring expansive windows overlooking King Street.
A veteran of the hotel world, Soriano is accustomed to hunkering down in the kitchen. “And then we back him up with administration and management of the front of the house,” says Suhr. “It’s a partnership. And there’s a committee.”
The committee, I suspect, has too many members.
100 King’s menu features items from France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Lebanon, Turkey, and Morocco. “We all come from the Mediterranean,” explains Soriano. “And since the Lebanese Taverna wanted to do something different, not just Lebanese food, when we first started we said, ‘Why don’t we include some French food?’” Suhr describes the concept as “foods from the Mediterranean basin.”
The Mediterranean basin is a particularly diverse bathtub of cuisine, and the committee’s passion for small plates forces Soriano to explore a lot of unfamiliar territory outside of Lyon and Lebanon. The shrimp in the Shrimp Arak is overcooked; the arrack is not, creating a new and unpleasant form of shrimp cocktail. The braised lamb shank miraculously emerges from the tagine that tenderizes the meat without absorbing a trace of moisture. Seared sea scallops, which one server claimed “will shock you, they’re so big” arrive, in a pair, each the size of a quarter. The sautéed calamari-and-kalamata-olive combination is a good one, but the light dusting of flour on the squid is a dreadful idea. When served lukewarm, it’s inedible.
The French offerings at 100 King are mostly excellent, including the crispy duck confit and the polenta soufflé. You’ll recognize the rack of lamb from the Willard Room; it is as boring as it is perfectly prepared. LTG’s standard recipes, such as the hummus and baba ghanouj with pita, are as predictably fresh and satisfying as those you’ll find at any Lebanese Taverna. But when was the last time you wanted hummus and duck confit in the same sitting?
At 100 King, more than 40 wines are offered by the 3- or 6-ounce glass, with an additional 40 or so by the bottle or half-bottle. Wine-by-the-gulp offerings, explains Suhr, work well “with small plates. You can have a small glass of wine that compliments a variety of courses.” It’s a nice theory but one that ultimately fails, because the dishes roll out to tables when they are ready, rather than in defined courses. The randomness makes pairing impossible.
Soriano doesn’t even try to stray on sweets. While the cheese selection spans the Mediterranean, the desserts at 100 King are all French. The chocolate gâteau is a gooey round of warm bittersweet chocolate, made deliciously messier by the chocolate ice cream melting its way through the center. Soriano’s apple galette with honey ice cream is perfectly reserved, showcasing the natural sweetness from the expertly crisped fresh fruit.
100 King is upscale, expensive, and complicated—the antithesis of Lebanese Taverna. In unfamiliar territory, the committee is testing many ideas in search of a new formula. Until it finds one, enjoy the beautiful space upstairs, stick to Soriano’s French standbys, and order a bottle of whatever you like.
100 King, 100 King St., Alexandria, (703) 299-0076.—JW Stubbs
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