By Suzanne Struglinski - 10/22/09 10:35 PM EDT
Tucked inside the Asian-inspired Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and down the hall from the destination restaurant CityZen, is Ziebold’s latest creation. (The restaurant’s name is pronounced “SOU” as in south) Although the restaurant does not yet have a name on its door or a presence on the hotel’s website, Sou’Wester has been serving Ziebold and Rachael Harriman’s take on Southern- and Chesapeake Bay-style food since September.
The food is unapologetically American, from the root beer float cocktail to start, down to the fried apple pie, banana cream pie and carrot cake on the dessert menu. Seems fitting for the nation’s capital.
The menu offers simple takes on traditional Southern cooking, with a slight twist on timeworn recipes. For starters, an iceberg lettuce salad came simply dressed in a homemade ranch dressing. It seemed like something you would eat at home, yet the dressing had that fresh-made taste that is hard to replicate. The market salad included pickled pearl onions and goat cheese on thinly sliced bread, illustrating the small upscale touches to otherwise normal comfort food. Corn bread, biscuits and sweet potato rolls arrived warm with a tub of creamy butter.
For hot first-course options, the pork belly came with a pickled watermelon rind. The meat fell apart, it was so tender, and the sweet-and-sour, vinegar-infused flavor of the relish created a mouth-puckering, salty-and-sweet combination. The thick bacon taste on top of the perfectly seasoned and finely chopped rind made me wish I had seen the delicious potential of all of those rinds I tossed out after cookouts over the years.
The crab fritters offered the first taste of fried food on the menu, but certainly not the last — or the best. The dish included a few unexpected slices of fried lemon, which needed to be listed on the menu description, as they were the best option on the plate. The fritters and the bulb onions were heavily dipped in a flavorless batter. The Green Goddess dressing that accompanied the fried morsels also did little to improve their taste. A few more lemon slices would have been a better alternative.
Ziebold keeps the Southern and home-style theme going with the entrees: fried chicken and coleslaw, chicken and dumplings, short ribs and even the classic crab imperial.
The flank steak was the standout dish of the night. It came perfectly pink inside — just as ordered — with a strong red-wine flavor. The tender meat was splashed in a wine-and-mushroom sauce and sat atop a piece of Texas toast. The bread turned out to be a soggy mess — it soaked up the majority of the meat juices and sauce — but the dish was still totally worth eating.
The crab imperial came under a porgie — a flaky and delicate white-meat fish. The crab was chopped with vegetable and spices, making it similar to a crab cake, but in a much looser texture. The most satisfying way to eat this entrée was to get a forkful of both the fish and the crab and drag it through the accompanying white sauce.
The side dishes my dining companion and I ordered were more plain, simple, down-home food. The fried okra came whole, and the kitchen prepared it in the same manner as the crab fritters — heavy on batter, light on taste. The hush puppies, when paired with their accompanying honey butter, tasted like funnel cake. The twice-baked potato and broccoli and rice casserole were bland and seemed to be missing the fancy twist on familiar favorites that appeared in all the other dishes.
For dessert, again the theme was comfort food. The carrot cake came in a small, stacked rectangle; my dining companion, a self-proclaimed carrot cake connoisseur, described it as having the perfect cake-to-icing ratio. The cake looked dense but was actually light, moist and fluffy. It had traditional cream cheese icing in the middle and a small bit on the plate in case the forkful didn’t have quite enough. As for the banana cream pie, it came cold with a thick serpent-shaped cap of frosting from the crust to the tip of the slice. Huge chunks of banana were underneath, and they were combined with a creamy, almost pudding-like filling. The crust was flaky, but there was so much of the thick filling that its flavor got lost.
While the food might need some polish, the service did not. Sommelier Carlton McCoy, who previously worked at CityZen down the hall, offered great advice on wine. McCoy also made great suggestions for wine to complement the entrees. There was a good by-the-glass selection, and the wine list has bottles at all price points. The servers described each plate as it came to the table and were quick replenish drinks. Extra rolls came almost before I could ask for more (and you will want to ask for them).
Instead of “happy hour,” the restaurant has a 3-to-5 p.m. “country time,” when patrons can enjoy drinks in wooden rocking chairs.
Sou’Wester is a good option when taking a break from the action on the National Mall or looking for traditional, familiar foods in a fine dining atmosphere.