“One day,” my dining companion boldly predicted, “all of 14th Street will look like this.”
We’re sitting on plush chairs by a velvety-curtained window in Lost Society, overlooking the bus stop outside the District’s Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center—a lingering monument to the brutalist era of urban renewal. Like much of the surrounding neighborhood, it’s gotten a recent face-lift.
On the streets below, crowds are loudly gathering outside the block’s other restaurants: Marvin, BlackByrd Warehouse—and, of course, Subway, which is located directly beneath our feet. Our seats are probably hovering somewhere over the sandwich counter. Tap twice for extra mayo!
The location, one level above a fast-food chain, is apt. Up here, the décor (think upscale-sports-bar-meets-downtown-brothel) and the menu (steak and fish) are a tad more sophisticated than at the ground-level sandwich franchise. But they’re nowhere near as stuffy or pricey as the furnishings and fare at some of the city’s finer dining establishments.
That makes sense, because this is midrange dining with middling quality control. An appetizer of stuffed lobster arrives on the half-shell, sprinkled with bread crumbs, followed by a fatty slab of pork belly, and served with sautéed spinach and big mealy yellow beans. The presentation is pretty if the execution is imperfect: The lobster comes out lukewarm, almost chilly. Frankly, I didn’t realize the stuffed variety could be done “Maine-style,” like some frosty claws on a food-truck roll.
The crispy top layer of the pork is tough to cut, much less chew, like a pork rind infused with superglue. The usually tender meat is supposed to melt in your mouth, not stick to your teeth.
On this night, a tempura-style soft-shell crab is the saving grace of the openers. Lightly coated in a beer batter, the crab is tender and delicious, served atop a colorful, fresh-tasting succotash.
Of course, we didn’t come to Lost Society for some measly appetizers. We came for the meaty entrées—the main attraction at a modishly designed new restaurant and lounge that’s out to re-envision the traditional steak-house menu for a younger, less buttoned-up crowd.
A nonstuffy highlight: filet mignon, rarely a steak connoisseur’s first choice of cuts. At Lost Society, chef Joseph Evans knows how to clean it up nice—slather that broiled 10-ounce hunk with butter; in this case, a creamy spread instilled with parsley, tarragon, and roasted bone marrow. “I just think it adds a nice richness to [the steak],” Evans, a 28-year-old Smith & Wollensky veteran, says of the last ingredient.
When Lost Society opened in early July, it billed itself as D.C.’s first “boutique steak house.” The curious descriptor was seemingly intended to bolster the venue’s cool cred the same way it does for fashion-conscious boutique hotels that are supposed to be more chic than plain old Hiltons.
That may be easier said than done. There’s no agreed-upon recipe for making a steak house hip—especially in a city only now shedding its steak-and-potatoes dining reputation. As it happens, the question has divided the restaurant’s owners: A lot of the most compelling action during Lost Society’s brief run has involved their pitched legal battle with one another in D.C. Superior Court.
One partner, Aman Ayoubi, proprietor of neighboring restaurant and lounge Local 16, among other venues, filed suit in May, alleging various breaches of contract on the part of the other co-owners, David Karim and Richard Vasey. Karim and Vasey, also partners in nearby Policy, counter-sued, charging Ayoubi with contract violations of his own.
The accusations are numerous. But according to court papers, the central beef boils down to this: Ayoubi, who claimed ultimate authority over the establishment’s food choices, wanted to hire a different chef, identified in court documents as John Maher, formerly of San Francisco’s Cav wine bar and an alum of Thomas Keller’s illustrious French Laundry.
Ayoubi has accused Vasey, whom he described in court papers as more of a construction guy, of usurping his role, terminating Maher “after the chef informed Vasey that he would not ‘copy’ the menus of two Philadelphia restaurants Vasey liked,” and later hiring a new chef, Evans, without Ayoubi’s input or approval.
Vasey, meanwhile, charges Ayoubi with having “failed to identify acceptable candidates for the chef’s position.” His court filings mention a tasting of menu options selected by Ayoubi’s hand-picked chef in late 2010, which the other owners were less than thrilled by: “Unfortunately, the majority of the [co-owners]…were not in agreement with Mr. Maher’s food concept and/or food palate.”
Litigation is ongoing.
As the owners try to hammer out their differences in the courtroom, Evans tries to make the concept work in the kitchen.
In the six weeks since the place opened, both the patrons and the chef himself are beginning to better understand just what the term “boutique steak house” truly means.
For one thing, it implies a far cozier kitchen than the standard steak house’s. “I’m running off of one broiler, four burners, and one 12-inch flat-top,” says Evans, who is more accustomed to having a roomier cooking space. The kitchen area at Smith & Wollensky, he estimates, may be bigger than Lost Society in its entirety.
And another thing: It’s less about the beef than even Evans expected. The supposed steak house’s menu offers just four cuts: the 10-ounce filet, a 14-ounce bone-in strip, a 20-ounce bone-in rib eye, and a 20-ounce T-bone. By comparison, the dinner menu at Smith & Wollensky includes six styles of filet alone, plus 10 other types of steak. Evans had originally included a prime rib and a boneless strip, but those turned out to be “not big sellers,” he says.
The price point is another big difference: Not a single cut of meat costs as much as the cheapest cut at Evans’ former steak house.
Among Evans’ current roster of steaks, the strip is perhaps the most obvious straggler. Mine arrived nicely charred along its bony edge but coated in far too much blue cheese—three substantial dollops of the stuff, overpowering both the flavor of the meat and its accompanying cognac sauce.
Far better choices would be the rib eye, sauced with a comparatively lighter blend of mascarpone, Gruyère, crème fraîche, and chanterelle mushrooms, and the T-bone, topped with the same bone-marrow-enhanced butter as Evans’ filet.
Tellingly, the chef also got rid of his steak tartare appetizer, which he described as an Asian-style twist on the typical Dijon-and-Worcestershire recipe. Customers didn’t fully appreciate it, so it was swapped out in favor of a fresh-tuna version that might have been my favorite dish of all my visits.
The chilled fish comes seasoned in a zesty sauce incorporating Korean chili paste and is served atop slices of pickled watermelon rind. The tuna is a far brighter tasting option than the oysters, a paltry four of them plated colorfully atop a plate of seaweed but each regretfully drown in mignonette.
Seafood, it turns out, is a bigger component to this boutique brand of beef emporium. “We’re selling almost 50 percent fish,” reports Evans.
Evans’ blackened shrimp with wild-rice risotto is another standout in this category, more so than the too-mild grouper. Evans says he sources his shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, seasoning them with his own blend of cayenne, chili powder, chipotle powder, ancho powder, onions, garlic, and thyme, among other ingredients. The spicy shrimps are tempered nicely by the creamy risotto, a complementary combo that I describe as a sort of Yankee spin on shrimp ’n’ grits—provided the chef, a Texas native, wouldn’t be offended by the characterization.
One more area in which Evans would be wise to tinker is his sides. Neither the mac ’n’ cheese nor the potato gratin made much of an impression. And my friends and I barely touched the thinly sliced and breaded zucchini ribbons, which smacked of too much salt.
The lone exception seems to be the mushrooms, sautéed in garlic, shallots, and oil and then finished with a few pats of, yes, the very same bone-marrow butter used on Evans’ steaks.
Maybe that’s the key to making your boutique steak house a success: bone-marrow butter on everything.
Photos by Matt Dunn
Lost Society, 2001 14th St. NW, (202) 618-8868
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.