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Every restaurant touts its “menu concept,” as if art were its only consideration, but let’s face it: Every restaurant is fighting to fit itself into one market niche or another. That’s especially true of restaurants that take up residence in a trendy, hyper-competitive area such as the newly booming East End, where having a niche is more important than being original or, yes, even having good food.
Let’s see now: Zola is for the beautiful people (and the people who want to be near the beautiful people). Zaytinya and Jaleo are the places to go for small plates served up in stage-managed surroundings. Rosa Mexicano, which pushes its tableside-prepared guacamole and smoothielike pomegranate margaritas with all the urgency of a streetcorner hustler, draws a reliable postgame crowd. As for the chains that litter the landscape, their entire operations are predicated upon exhaustive market evaluation. (Hooters, for instance, wouldn’t be the success that it is if it hadn’t long since determined that lots of people would want to ogle women and eat buffalo wings in a place slightly less cheap and dirty than a strip club.)
So where does a place like Poste, the stylish New American restaurant in the Hotel Monaco, fit into such a scene? It’s a question the restaurant itself, two years after opening, is still trying to answer. Neither as fashion-conscious as Zola nor as sharply focused as Jaleo and Zaytinya, Poste lacks a ready identity—a problem that isn’t helped any by the fact that a lot of people can’t find the place when they first go looking for it. The Old General Post Office might be one of the glories of architecture in this city, but it doesn’t lend itself readily to commercial reuse—all signage must be approved by the General Services Administration, and Poste’s is subtle to the point of inconspicuous. As you walk through the lobby of the hotel to the restaurant’s inside entrance, the confusion only intensifies. A bold, brightly colored design aesthetic (contemporary furniture, modernist prints) battles stately sobriety (monumental columns, marble floors) to a bizarre draw. It’s hard not to sense a bullheaded stubbornness on the part of the nationally recognized Kimpton Group, determined to prove that its well-traveled hipster sensibility can transform a hotel in conservative, bureaucratic Washington.
And even in an industry where nobody who hears the word “turnover” is going to think “pastry,” Poste’s kitchen hasn’t exactly been a model of stability. The founding chef, John Mathieson, left shortly after the place opened; his replacement, Jay Comfort, stayed a little under a year. The new chef, or chef of the moment, is Robert Weland, who last manned the stove at Guastavino’s, earning two stars from the New York Times for his work at the East Side brasserie.
His tightly focused summer menu—nine apps, nine entrees, lots of seasonal touches—might appear, in this context, to be the product of top-down instigation, but it also makes a lot of practical sense. And a place still in search of itself could do worse than to rebuild around a chef who has made simplicity his be-all, end-all. Each dish seems to have been conceived with the idea of communicating a single idea—a single flavor, a single texture—as though Weland has taken it upon himself to solve the identity problem one plate at a time.
When it works, Weland seems every bit the beleaguered restaurant’s savior. I love the crispy Amish chicken, whose name sounds suspiciously like ad copy but is more than justified. For one thing, the chicken tastes like chicken, no small achievement in this age of FedExed, flash-frozen meats and fishes. For another, the breast is juicy, and the skin doesn’t merely look the part of the perfectly roasted bird, with its golden layer of crackling—it tastes it, too. Even the bubbling ring of mushroom foam, a bit of gimmickry that falls flat (the foam dries up in a matter of minutes), doesn’t detract from the dish’s essential unpretentiousness.
Weland’s ricotta ravioli are equally worthy. The two palm-sized rounds are a testament to balance: The wrapper is neither undercooked nor too soft and yielding—it retains its integrity right up through the last cut. The creaminess of the ricotta is counteracted by a snarl of pea tendrils, a beautiful accompaniment of salt-roasted onion, and a lick of good olive oil. You can try, but you’re not likely to find a better plate of ravioli at the city’s best Italian restaurants.
And let me say a few words on behalf of the olive-oil-poached black cod, a recent special. The alabaster-white fish, possessing a slippery lushness reminiscent of a top-notch piece of salmon or fatty-tuna sashimi, was supported by a cool, sweet yellow-tomato broth ringed by a half-dozen peeled baby heirlooms.
Such dishes are worth braving the traffic and the crowds and the fashionistas for. The problem—and it’s not a mark against Weland’s cooking, exactly, though it does point up the considerable challenge he faces, which is to try to separate Poste from the innumerable stylish, midlevel options in the neighborhood—is that nothing else on the menu is quite so distinctive.
There is a lot of solid, steady cooking on offer, and the food is so colorful and pretty to look at that, if you’re drinking and carrying on with friends and luxuriating in the cool, airy digs of the main dining room, it probably wouldn’t even occur to you to register a complaint. The outright failures have been few: a watery, virtually crunchless soft-shell crab, served with equally bad shaved-ice-topped tuna tartare—easily the most unfocused dish on the menu; an olive-oil-poached salmon that is both undercooked and underconceived.
Having seen what Weland at his best can accomplish, I’m that much more inclined to gripe at an otherwise fine bowl of mussels, whose broth is so thin and so dull (despite its numerous slivers of garlic) that I don’t immediately find myself reaching for a slice of bread to soak it up. Or to bitch about a bowl of bright-tasting gazpacho, blended so hard as to turn a soup into a cloying emulsion. Or to wonder what might have been with a couple of the entrees: The steak frites is as good as you’ll find at any place that’s not a bistro, but the meat needs a few aggressive shakes of salt to coax the blood-borne flavors to the surface. The veal chop with grilled spring onions, porcini mushrooms, fava beans, and polenta—at $30, the most expensive item on the menu—is respectable, but not all that memorable. Its flavors are, finally, too diffuse, lacking the coherence and directness of either the chicken or ravioli—a reminder that the brand of simplicity to which Weland aspires is, in fact, exceedingly difficult to pull off, much less with anything approaching consistency.
It’s also a reminder that, before you can even think of establishing an identity in the neighborhood, you’ve got to first establish an identity in the kitchen.
Poste, 555 8th St. NW, (202) 783-6060.—Todd Kliman
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