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eCiti is a new theme restaurant/nightclub built inside an old warehouse near Tysons Corner. Given that the Tysons edifice is hard to miss even from the window of an airplane, and that the building housing eCiti is fairly huge, you’d think that the place would be easy to find. It is notat least not at first. The friendly staffers who answer the phone are quick to offer directions, but we ultimately find discrepancies in their individual notions of “left” and “right,” prompting a lot of on-the-road cell phone use and a lovely but unplanned tour of some of McLean’s cushy neighborhoods.
We assume the occupants of many of those palatial homes to be beneficiaries of Northern Virginia’s Internet boom, much like eCiti itself. In case the name didn’t tip you off, eCiti has fashioned itself as the official techie stomping ground. Indeed, in what amounts to an IPO-age riff on the caricatures that grace the walls of the Palm, eCiti’s two-story-high bar area is covered with giant banner advertisements for dot-coms, one of which touts “Extreme performance. Extreme availability. Extreme scalability. Extreme service.”
Whether it’s a true sign of the times or merely the result of eCiti’s attempts to create a big-city buzz beyond the shade of an actual city, it’s unmistakable upon approaching this bonanza that you’re not really in McLean anymore. “Gentlemen, I need to see your IDs and tell you about our dress code,” barks the bouncer, decked out in a suit and an earpiece, like a presidential goon. I checked (and followed) the dress restrictions (no jeans or tennis shoes) in advance, yet the goon stares suspiciously at my untucked shirt. He relaxes when he spots the cuts in the fabric near my waist. “I was going to have to ask you to tuck in your shirt,” he explains, “but you’ve got the inverted V, so you’re fine. It’s all right as long as you’ve got the inverted V.”
Once safely inside (where we’re carded again), we find it difficult not to marvel at eCiti’s multitasking setup. (A local business publication’s review posted by the door gives the whole enterprise very high marks: four phones each for Food, Cost, and Atmosphere; five for Networking.) There’s a cash machine near the entrance, just like at a casino. To the left of the host stand lies a cavernous nightclub replete with two bars, a dance floor, a catwalk crossing high overhead, and a DJ booth stationed next to a sushi bar. To the right sits the restaurant, separated from the rest of eCiti by a wall with windows.
The whole place seems too enamored of its playground aspects for us to expect much of the food. So we’re surprised when the waitress’s list of specials includes an appetizer of grilled sardines and an entree of halibut steamed in a two-ply wrapper of prosciutto and lettuce. That would be the work of chef Jamie Stachowski, late of Dupont Circle’s much-loved Pesce. His menu looks promising, but aside from a fragrant, garlicky plate of mussels topped with a thatch of thin, crunchy Brittany fries, the food is several megabytes less exciting in reality than it reads on the page.
We’re startled by the sweet, fleshy tenderness of Stachowski’s seared diver scallops, nestled in a pool of soft polenta and red-wine demiglace, and the Caesar salad is just fine. But as the meal grinds on, we can’t help wishing that someone would cut off the kitchen’s salt supply. Not only have the pappardelle with veal meatballs and the farfalle carbonara sat too long under the heat lamp, but they both answer our question as to why there’s a waitress whose sole job seems to be to refill our water glasses. A thick-cut pork chop is saved from similar ruin only because the more you salt pork, the more it tastes like bacon, and in this case, with plantain tostadas and a sweet corn tamale sharing the plate, softening the blow of each salty-juicy bite, that’s just fine.
It should be noted that on this Thursday night, food is barely even a sideshow; with all the hubbub erupting outside its door, I’d be impressed if the kitchen staff could produce a burger cooked to order. By midmeal, there’s a line snaking down eCiti’s front steps and into the parking lot; the parking valets are swamped. There’s barely room to move inside the club, which is where the bathrooms are. Returning to our table after making the potty journey with tales of inverted-V-scouting goons, half-drunk coeds exchanging business cards and dancing to Counting Crows, and well-into-middle-age men hanging around hoping for a miracle, my friend announces, “It’s like Vegas in there.”
That’s far from the case several nights later, a Tuesday, when we have our pick of tables in the dining room and the nightclub’s virtually empty. Our waiter informs us that Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays are the best bar nights for people our ageSaturdays being more popular with the older folksbut adds that if we’ve come for food, Tuesday’s just about right. He may have a point. The center-cut beef filet is rosy and bold, smartly set off by some cabernet-soaked horseradish strips and a cheesy potato soufflé. And we devour the crispy duck confit, tart with a sour-cherry vinaigrette and bundled with goat cheese and frisée, in short order.
But the fun ends there. Not because the bread holding a silly portobello sandwich tastes like stale poundcake. Not because the brine-cured chicken is so salty that the waiter reads my face and actually asks, “Is it too salty?” Even the two-toned cheesecake, with a raspberry layer that tastes nothing like raspberry and looks like pâté, is forgivable. eCiti’s trying to be too many things, so it’s only half-good at most of themwhich is fine. And the networking possibilities are still off the charts, at least Wednesday through Friday. The real bummer is that my shirt’s untuckedand no one even notices.
eCiti Cafe & Bar, 8500 Tyco Road, McLean, (703) 760-9000.
Chef Geoff’s suffers eCiti’s problem in reverse. The bad stuff just seems to be missing something, be it ginger flavor in the wild mushroom soup with ginger, or, in the case of the tomato-mozzarella bruschetta, the step in which you turn the bread into toast. But I’d go back to eat a BLT on the tree-shaded front patio. And two readers like the inside enough to “set up camp at the bar at least two nights a week.”
Chef Geoff’s, 3201 New Mexico Ave. NW, (202) 237-7800.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.