City Paper is not for tourists
Restaurant Week always sounds like a magical opportunity. Twice a year, many of the city’s best restaurants open their doors to the plebeians who can’t normally afford their financially destabilizing fare. For $20, you get a three-course lunch. For $30, you get a three-course dinner. That’s three to four star dining on a half-star budget. Unfortunately, the experience doesn’t always live up to the hype. Servers and hostesses can be downright disrespectful to the invading middle-class masses. Some eateries only offer a few entree choices on their “special” menus and keep their best dishes at full price. You don’t need to be a professional eater to know that you’ve been gypped. This week, we’re breaking down our RW experiences for you.
The restaurant: Butterfield 9, 600 14th St. NW, (202) 289-8810.
The usual menu: For reasons I don’t understand, Butterfield 9 doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It was ranked No. 95 on the Washingtonian‘s recent 100 Best Restaurants list, far below a number of places whose line cooks aren’t worthy to lick chef Michael Harr‘s pans. The Washington Post didn’t even bother to include Butterfield 9 in its most recent Dining Guide. What gives? Maybe it has to do with the restaurant’s dated, dinner-club ambiance or with its equally cheesy reference to old Hollywood movies. (A number of writers have claimed that Butterfield 9 refers to the phone exchange from the Thin Man films, but I can only find a reference to the 1960 Liz Taylor flick, Butterfield 8.) Or maybe it has to do with Harr’s understated menu, which can, on the surface, seem too Old School for those dazzled by Asian fusion, upscale ethnic eats, or clever riffs on classic American prole food.
The RW menu: A smart, generous distillation of Harr’s regular menu. The dinner menu features four first-course options, five second-course options, and three dessert options.
The sneaky little surcharges: None of the dishes demanded extra charges, though you could add shrimp or foie gras to any dish for $5 or $10 respectively. You could also add wine pairings to each course for a modest $19.08 per person.
The total cost of my meal: Hell if I know. A friend paid for most of it, including the wine-pairing option. But I will say this: Had I paid for my fair share, it would have been $30.08, plus $19.08, plus tax and tip. That puts the final bill around $66, depending on what kind of tipper you are. Not exactly a RW-friendly price, but also not bad for three courses with wine pairings.
The condescension factor: Okay, so I wasn’t pleased about waiting for 40 minutes for a table; we had an 8:30 reservation, after all. That’s excessive under any circumstance. Should Butterfield 9 have comped me something for the wait? Perhaps if I were a dick who didn’t understand RW and was under an extreme time-pressure, yes. But I was neither, and what’s more, I enjoyed my time bantering with the bartender over his approach to making a Negroni. At our table (which, by the way, was freezing because a draft was shooting right at it), our waitress was more efficient than friendly, but I didn’t hold that against her. Let’s all say this together: It’s Restaurant Week. The servers are under enormous strain.
Would you go back? In a heartbeat. I’d go back for the stewed bay scallops with octopus and calamari—-a light, chowderlike appetizer that was grounded with the welcome addition of earthy winter beans. I’d go back for the longneck squash soup, a velvety puree of roasted winter squash with these bright, sharp, and textural garnishes of goat cheese and pancetta. I’d go back for the Hawaiian escolar, a thick, buttery fillet paired with toasted basmati and a “saffron shellfish emulsion.” I’d go back for the Carnaroli risotto—-which uses the Italian “It Rice,” Carnaroli instead of the standard Arborio—-even if the liquid in the watery dish could have been reduced more and could have shed some its crunchy bits of celery root. I’d go back for the warm pistachio financier, this warm, spongy tea cake that comes with a passion-fruit creme “veloute.” I’d even go back for the braised beef short rib, but only if the kitchen toughens up the wimpy pan jus that accompanied the tender flesh. All in all, I’d say Butterfield 9 did exactly what a restaurant should do for RW: presented itself in the best possible light to first-time diners. I suspect many others will be returning, too.