Chef Geoff: Building a culinary empire

If Geoff Tracy keeps opening restaurants at the rate he did in the first decade of the 21st century, half of Washington will be eating at his establishments by the end of the next decade.

Since striking out on his own after an apprenticeship as dining room manager at 1789 in Georgetown by opening the eponymous Chef Geoff’s near American University in 2000, the 37-year-old native of Hartford, Conn., has launched five local restaurants and is thinking of opening a sixth in 2011.

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As Tracy, who graduated from Georgetown University in 1995, told me when I reviewed his first two restaurants in this space in 2004, a degree in theology comes in handy in his highly competitive business — as evidenced by the fact that each of the three restaurants bearing his name is located on a site where previous restaurants failed. “You do a lot of praying when you have two small businesses,” he said.

He must be praying a lot these days as he oversees a culinary empire that extends from Wesley Heights to downtown Washington to Chevy Chase, Md., to Hyattsville, Md., to Tysons Corner, Va. (And who knows, since he wrote his thesis on the religious dialogue between Christians and Muslims, maybe there’ll soon be a Chef Geoff’s in Baghdad and Kabul.)

I didn’t have the time or gustatory endurance to eat at his two other restaurants, the Italian-themed Lia’s in Chevy Chase, opened in 2006, or Hanks Tavern & Eats in Hyattsville, opened in 2008 in partnership with his brother Chris Tracy. But after visits to the original Chef Geoff’s in Wesley Heights, Chef Geoff’s Downtown at 13th and Pennsylvania (opened in 2002) and the newest one, Chef Geoff’s at Tysons Corner (opened in 2009), I doubt that he’ll need divine intervention to guarantee future success.

For example, lunch at Chef Geoff’s Downtown, which, like his other restaurants, features a lively bar and an outdoor dining area, left me singing his praises. I started with a silky chilled corn and crab soup, followed by a humongous dry aged burger topped by bacon, blue cheese and onion jam. Both were superb.

I fared even better at lunch at the original Chef Geoff’s. I started with the sweet corn bisque, which was piping hot, bursting with flavor and replete with a mound of lump crabmeat, and chose the scallops and sweet corn risotto with oyster mushrooms and grape tomatoes as my entrée. It was heavenly, one of the best things this risotto lover has tasted.

While favorably impressed with the first two restaurants, I came away from a dinner with my wife at his Tysons Corner outpost with some reservations, and not the kind you need to get a table. They’re the same I have for any ambitious entrepreneurial chef, and left me wondering whether Chef Geoff might be spreading himself too thin, as have many other chefs with multiple restaurants.

The restaurant is located on a cobblestone courtyard across from booming Tysons Corner I shopping center. It’s an elegant setting with a spectacular L-shaped, granite-topped bar that wraps around a glass-enclosed wine room storing several thousand bottles. It has soft lighting from hanging lights, four separate dining rooms and a large outdoor dining area, which we avoided because of the torrid July temperature.

Admittedly, my expectations were high, but I was dismayed by the disconcertingly high noise level emanating from the bar, even though we were seated a good distance away in a separate room, which actually made it difficult to communicate. But I didn’t mind so much, since it was a Monday, when all wines are half-price, and we enjoyed a superb Chalk Hill chardonnay from California’s Sonoma Valley at the bargain price of $42.50.

We shared an appetizer of hoisin BBQ duck confit rolls with scallion crepes, which, while a bit too spicy for my wife, I found delicious. Unfortunately, the crepes were so wet and fragile that I had to use a fork to eat them. A final disappointment came with my roasted wild Alaska halibut, served with lemon gnocchi, lobster, bacon, corn and tomato butter. The fish was overcooked to the point of dryness, although my wife’s roasted salmon with asparagus, fingerling potatoes, shallot confit and beet vinaigrette was perfectly prepared.

Chef Geoff, who wasn’t present that night, told me when I ate at the original Chef Geoff’s that he and his wife, the lovely and talented MSNBC chief Washington correspondent Norah O’Donnell, and their three children have just moved to a new home in Wesley Heights, which he expects to spend the rest of the year renovating before thinking about opening a sixth restaurant. He and O’Donnell also wrote a cookbook for children’s food, “Baby Love,” scheduled for release later this month.