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I think that all creative types would agree that money guys, the so-called experts with beepers who fancy themselves managers, have the capacity to suck the beauty out of anything. They’re the ones who sell landscapes on the strength of the colors’ matching the buyer’s antique chaise and hawk ceramic sculptures to the trust-fund kids as bongs. Was it the composer’s idea to pimp her sonata as the score for a douche commercial? I don’t think so.
Enter Bob McKay. Fairmont Bar & Dining is McKay’s first venture as a restaurateur, although he knows the trade well enough to have sold his knowledge of it for a fee. McKay, who co-owns Fairmont with Jim Davis, is a former restaurant consultant—meaning that he’s no stranger to telling creative types what to do. It’s possible that there are chefs out there who think of him as the Antichrist.
Or perhaps not. As far as money men go, restaurateurs are a funny species. They may technically be bean counters, but they also shoulder the brunt of the conceptual load and, in many cases, a fair amount of the executive burden. Tales of chef-owner friction are legion in the restaurant biz—because each party knows that it can’t really get along without the other.
The background McKay brings into the ownership arena is interesting, given what many people suspect about calculating consultants; there are few places colder than a restaurant that can’t hide its expectation for profit. But from the looks of things, McKay’s experience is serving him well. Fairmont’s clearly the product of minds keen on settling the common gripes of customers before they even develop. The wine list, which features three different price ranges under the headings “Good,” “Better,” and “Best,” is as user-friendly as an iMac. Appetizers are priced and sized according to how many people plan to eat them. The bar includes shelf space for purses and briefcases, the coat check’s free, and on a recent Friday, Pulp Fiction was playing on the house TV. Tired of bread that tastes like a clump of pages torn from a dictionary? Everything from the crusty stuff in the basket to the thick white slices holding together your grilled cheese comes fresh from Marvelous Market.
The leader of Fairmont’s exposed kitchen, Leungo Lippe, is, to judge by his resume, hardly your run-of-the-mill yes man. Lippe worked for Marco Pierre White in London, a chef who’s a big enough deal in his own town that he’s reportedly had success seducing female customers away from their husbands—during dinner. But just as soon as McKay finishes spelling Lippe’s name, he says, “We’re just a neighborhood place.”
That may be so, but at least Fairmont’s owners are allowing Lippe to produce food that he can be proud of—most of the time. The fried ravioli stuffed with sage and pumpkin are a little dull, making me happy that there are only three in my single order. Those colorful root-vegetable chips I always see at Fresh Fields make better decorations than snacks, but here they come hot from the oil and, as chips should, dusted with a generous sprinkling of salt; our table of three works over a double batch right through dessert. Sirloin carpaccio comes in only one size: big. But the meat is sliced sheer enough to double as a porch screen, and even though someone went a little overboard with the cracked pepper, the dish delivers a good beef fix along with some healthy chunks of Parm. And if you order the mussels, don’t let the waiter run away with your bread. The cream-thickened juice that they’re steamed in was made for dipping.
Fairmont’s food is so trend-adherent (grilled pizza, homemade tortellini, roasted vegetable panini, and so on) that perusing the menu is a little like shopping for books at an airport—just about everything’s a best seller. It could be numbing if the execution weren’t always spot-on.
The roasted chicken is literally sizzling when it arrives, and the wine reduction surrounding it more than makes up for any moisture lost to cooking. The lamb sandwich is well-suited for folks who distrust gyro meat; the lamb is well-marinated, and its rosy color tells you that it is indeed lamb. The beef portion of my steak frites is on the tough side, but the accompanying fries are worthy of their own centerfold—gold as straw and just a hair thinner than a slim woman’s pinkie. Seafood is surprisingly good (as in the mahi-mahi served over a crisp sheet of potatoes), surprisingly bad (as in salmon served with hard sticky rice and a vague lemongrass broth), and just plain surprising: Lobster mashed potatoes sounds like a bad idea—are we talking about a blend here?—and then it arrives, the crustacean striped red and stripped of its head and shell, in mid-crawl over a mound of spuds.
As successful as Fairmont’s food seems, the question remains whether a restaurant so corporate in its efficiency and design can succeed in being “just a neighborhood place”—can a money guy be the guy next door? The desserts, served in bite-sized, $2 portions, are almost too cute. Yet I love the dainty cup of creme brulee, and the cube of caramel paired with cookies is so off-the-charts rich it might as well be fudge. Even the disasters are mildly endearing. The day I find something funny in my duck pizza, McKay is more dismayed than I am, and he demonstrates as much by comping my lunch. The next time I come in, he’s still distraught. The time after that: “Hey, we haven’t seen you in, what, four days?”
Fairmont Bar & Dining, 4936 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda, (301) 654-7989.
One reader is so taken with Cafe Di Mamma that he called once to tell me he had a place that I had to go to, another time to tell me what that place was, and a third time to find out if I’d gotten a chance to check it out. Order stromboli and you can watch it evolve from dough to plate; order the garden salad and you’ll wish that the greens were similarly fresh. Di Mamma is an order-at-the-counter Italian joint that’s been around less than a decade but looks as old as Marlon Brando does in the picture on the wall. Still, not even red-sauce restaurants can escape the future. It’s right there on the take-out menu: “Coming soon:
Cafe Di Mamma, 4483 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 686-1992.—Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.