Show of Hands: Bistro patrons Michael Bird and Judy Stout
Show of Hands: Bistro patrons Michael Bird and Judy Stout Credit: Charles Steck

The stone tiles and the panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows, which look out onto the courtyard at the Kellogg Conference Hotel, have all the sound absorption of an echo chamber. Yet as a friend and I eat our lunch at The Bistro, the hotel’s indoor nod to French sidewalk cafes, we exchange thoughts without once resorting to the raised voices and repeated sentences so often required at those casual dining spots in Penn Quarter and other hipper-than-thou ’hoods.

Our quiet repast is due to one indisputable fact: Joe and I are virtually the only ones here using our vocal chords to communicate. Most of the other diners are signing, which makes sense: The Bistro is located in the heart of Gallaudet University.

Joe works every Wednesday at Gallaudet, and he was eager to introduce me to the Bistro’s buffet, which he anticipates each week with the passion of a prisoner eyeing his release date. Like any ego-bloated food writer who wants to be the first to draw readers a map to a secret dining adventure, I had hoped the Bistro was, somehow, still an undiscovered treasure 12 years after its opening.

Now I’d have to be a real ass to spit on a dear friend’s taste buds, so I won’t. But I’d venture to say the corporate kitchen of FLIK International, which contracts to cook for both the Bistro and the hotel, isn’t turning out the area’s most intriguing cooking. Still, Executive Chef Jeff Decka, who’s been on the Gallaudet campus for little more than two months, produces a spread that’s several notches above typical school-cafeteria fare.

FLIK doesn’t do steam tables, Decka tells me. Instead the company mandates the buffet system you see at the Bistro. The cooked foods are held in colorful Staub “La Cocotte” oval ovens, which sit on silver grates above cans of blue-flaming Sterno. This holding process seems to retain moisture and flavor better than a traditional steam table, and it allows Decka to put items on his rotating daily menu that you won’t see on many buffets—like a buttery-moist halibut or a cornmeal-heavy fried catfish or even multicheese lasagnas, which ordinarily risk becoming either dried out fillets or congealed blobs with too much exposure to air.

Yet even with this Staub-enhanced holding system, I still prefer Decka’s salads and desserts over his entrees. I’m particularly fond of his beet-and-jicama salad, with its combination of earthiness and sweetness, and his line of homestyle cakes and cookies, especially the tart lemon squares and the straight-ahead simplicity of the airy golden fudge cake. For $13.95 per person, you can leave the Bistro full, if not always satisfied.

So why am I drawn to the Bistro? For the same reasons I’m drawn to other dining cultures I don’t belong to: for the experience, for the chance to learn new terms, for the opportunity to place myself in a position of sheer embarrassment. In this last category, Decka beat me to the punch. On his very first day on the job, Decka says his dishwasher, a deaf man with years of experience at Gallaudet, tried to walk out on him. The dishwasher apparently reviewed the day’s staff schedule, noticed the other pot scrubber had bailed, and stormed out in a huff. What he didn’t know—because Decka had failed to write him a note—was that the chef had called in a second dishwasher.

Out in the dining room, the lessons can come just as hard for customers without American Sign Language skills. The wait staff at the Bistro is deaf, which doesn’t pose as many issues as you might think. The self-serve, buffet-style approach lessens your need to communicate with a server. But when interactions cannot be avoided—say, when the waitress inquires whether you want your plate cleared—the communication gap between the deaf and the hearing can be awkward.

An example: My waitress, Nicole, is trying to ask me if I want something to drink besides water. She points to my glass and makes drinking motions with her hand. Once I understand her question, my first reaction—for some ridiculous reason—is to wave my hands over my glass. By the quizzical look on her face, Nicole seems to interpret this as a sign that I’m casting a spell. I finally convince her that I’m fine with water.

Gallaudet spokesperson Erin Casler suggests diners use notepads or simply snag someone in the dining room to help communicate with servers, since the Bistro tends to be full of signers. But then I ask Casler the question I’m really curious about, though I preface it with about 3,000 apologies for potential offensiveness: Is her sense of smell or taste heightened because of her deafness? The question is based not only on the old notion that the loss of one sense will sharpen the others but also on a trend that has recently caught fire in the States—“dark dining,” in which customers pay to eat in the dark or blindfolded.

To my surprise—and relief—Casler admits via e-mail, “I can tell you that my sense of smell is better than most people and I do think that I notice things that other people wouldn’t.” Which got me to thinking: Maybe I should tear a page from the dark-dining manual and see if plugging up my ears would intensify my eating experience. So I bought some earplugs at CVS and headed to Liberty Tavern in Clarendon.

Earplugs, of course, cannot fully submerge you into a world of silence. Sitting on Liberty’s patio with my wife, Carrie, I can hear most everything; it’s just all muted, which in the case of the outdoor music, is an absolute blessing. Our first dish, regrettably, is a hanger steak tartar with grilled rustic bread. The crunchiness of the bread rattles my skull. It sounds like the crunch of 10,000 boots on fresh snow, processed through a Marshall stack.

That’s the downside. The benefits are immediately obvious once I get to the softer foods. Everything seems magnified: the smokiness of the tomato purée with my mussels, the salty-sweetness of my “summer” pizza with black mission figs and country ham, even the deep, essential meatiness of my chicken breast. I realize that the trick, though, has less to do with any physiological change in my senses of taste or smell. It has more to do with concentration. With fewer distractions, my brain is free to focus on flavor—not the music, not the TVs, not the two middle-age dudes hitting on the waitress.

The experiment reminded me why I tend to keep silent even when I’m dining without earplugs. I want to create a quiet, Bistro-like space inside my own head. I find it’s the best way to savor food.

The Bistro in the Kellogg Conference Hotel, 800 Florida Ave. NE, (202) 651-6000.