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Reinventing yourself is never easy; it’s especially hard when many of the outward manifestations of the old self remain. Walk into Gabriel, in the Radisson Barcelo Hotel, on a Sunday morning and you’d never guess that the restaurant recently underwent a top-down transformation: new chef, new menu, new philosophy. The dining room looks the way it always has—same rich, patterned carpet, same elegant banquettes, same color scheme of deep reds and shimmery golds. And lookee there: the same five food stations, the chief attraction of which is undoubtedly Station 2. That’s the one with the crispy, toffee-skinned suckling pig.
This approximation of a communal, Latin American pig roast was the inspiration of former chef Greggory Hill, who was smart enough to round out his brunch with such standard American fare as scrambled eggs and toast for those too squeamish to embrace the sight of a freshly cooked animal with a face first thing in the morning. Eating brunch at a high-end destination, particularly if that high-end destination belongs to a hotel, and particularly if that hotel is a link in a large, sprawling chain, can sometimes feel like a soulless, impersonal experience, but Hill’s pig roast was a lusty antidote to any creeping corporate sensibility. It also served another purpose, providing customers with a hearty précis of the Nuevo Latino cooking he was doing the rest of the time. The brunch came to define the restaurant under Hill, who left after nine years to launch David Greggory with David Hagedorn.
New chef Antonio Burrell has opted to retain not just the roast suckling pig but every one of Hill’s brunch accouterments, too—from the inky black beans to the sweet, creamy polenta to the silken vanilla flan, right on down to the bottomless mimosa. You can’t fault the wisdom of the decision, financially speaking, and it’s hard to find it wanting on psychological grounds, either. Who can begrudge the guy a security blanket as he attempts to distance himself from his predecessor and at the same time preserve the reputation of a restaurant that his predecessor almost singlehandedly built? Yet the fact also remains that in my four visits over the past seven months, the new-old Sunday brunch stands as the most consistently satisfying experience I had at the old-new Gabriel.
Not that Burrell isn’t trying, and hard, to make the restaurant his own. Reading the menu, you sense a chef looking to exploit whatever opportunities are available to him, as though determined to counteract his single act of caution with a raft of experimentation. He has scrapped the Nuevo Latino theme in favor of a menu of contemporary American dishes, with “small plates” replacing the tapas. The new menu is among the more interesting in town, designed for adventure and grazing. Instead of the usual categories of appetizers, salads, and entrees, Burrell has organized the items so as to emphasize the sources of his dishes—“Fields,” “Sea,” “Farm” and “Market”—and dispensed, for the most part, with the usual distinctions where size is concerned. It’s hard to know at first just what to make of these dishes, which are too big for appetizers (and which, besides, are sometimes accompanied by as many as two sides) and too small for entrees.
The idea, the chef says, is that customers order up a round of plates to share, tapas-style, but as far as I can tell, customers have tended to choose a starter from “Fields” or “Sea” and then a selection from the “Farm” as their main course. One night, in the booth behind me, I heard a silver-haired guy who was staying overnight in the hotel complaining to his companion about his flatiron steak. “What happened,” he asked, “to my steak?”
He beckoned over his server, who explained, “It’s a small plate, sir.”
Sir didn’t miss a beat: “You got that right.”
Burrell’s divisions are helpful, but he might have gone a step further and divided even more: I’d add a fifth grouping called “Rich,” so as to accentuate the chef’s penchant for cream and cheese sauces, and for buttering up his dishes at the finish. That’s Burrell, accent on the beurre. Gnocchi arrive under a gooey canopy of intermittently blistered Grafton cheddar so thick that it doesn’t do its job of sticking to the little nubbins of pasta. Too bad, because they’re tender and well-made. A plate of ravioli filled with mascarpone cheese, topped with wild mushrooms and sauced with thyme butter, turns out to be less interesting than its component parts. Cream is the culprit in the soups. A chestnut bisque is so thick with the stuff that the chestnut registers merely as a backtaste. The butternut squash is similarly obscured in its bisque, though it takes only a bite or two of the half-sandwich—it was luscious duck confit this winter—that comes with it to realize that the soup is best meant as a complement to the sandwich, not the other way around. (In other words, dunk away.)
If the shrimp-and-grits plate—Burrell served a stint at the upscale-Southern Vidalia—succeeds, it’s because Burrell’s tendency to ratchet up the richness of a dish at all costs in this case finds its proper vehicle. The shrimp, fat and smoky from the grill, are perched atop a pool of lushly cheesy grits threaded with thin strips of good andouille sausage. The fats, here, are simply intensifying the flavors that are already present, instead of being asked to carry a lot of the load themselves.
The salads are a relief after so much heaviness. A crab-and-pear salad boasts a handful of field greens, lightly dressed in a pear vinaigrette and garnished with a julienne of both pear and red pepper. It’s bracketed on either side by a sort of half-napoleon, a dollop of crab salad tucked between thin slices of pear. A slick of curry sauce, bright and kicky, runs the length of the plate, adding a bit of wake-up to the otherwise unassertive crab.
The crab cake, though better seasoned—with a liberal dose of pepper and a dash of sweet mustard—turns out to be the poorer choice for crab. It’s undone by a usual suspect, a bit too much binder, which results in a soft, almost mealy texture that brings to mind factory-pressed patties of hash browns.
The same textural trouble turns up in the dressing that serves as bedding for the chicken breast. Though the Fuji apples are a nice touch, their sweetness only accentuates the similarities between the stuffing and a morning bowl of oatmeal. And the chicken turns out to be two boneless, skinless breasts that are so dry and overcooked as to make you question the wisdom of peeling off the protective layer of skin.
Burrell seems to fare better with more interesting meats. A loin of venison, for instance, is about as tender as the cut will allow, with a faint, liverish quality that lingers even after it’s swiped through the dark, juniper-berry wine sauce. I could do without the grilled spinach, whose aftertaste calls to mind the enhancements of liquid smoke, but the juniper-soaked pear slices that round out the plate add not just a bit of sweet crunch but also an elegant, cordial-like note to this lush, hunt-club dish. Lamb is soft and succulent, the pink slices fanned out around a puff pastry of goat cheese and roasted tomato that looks a bit like a strawberry shortcake—and seems to be striving to match one for sweetness.
It’s fitting, somehow, that just as the restaurant lies somewhere between old and new, and the portions lie somewhere between appetizer and entree, the quality of the cooking should lie somewhere between pedestrian and very good. Until that changes, one way or another, Gabriel will remain just where it is: somewhere between a solid if pricey neighborhood stop and a restaurant worth going out of your way for.
Gabriel, 2121 P St. NW, (202) 956-6690. —Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.