By Derek M. LaVallee - 06/15/07 06:39 PM EDT
We entered the restaurant, Nage, expecting simple sustenance but instead enjoyed one of the most pleasurable dining experiences of our lives. All conversation on the beach the following day was about the meal, and we agreed the experience seemed as if a dream. We returned for dinner that night and our culinary rapture was confirmed.
As we were lingering over our check and delaying our departure, our waiter told us Nage was opening in D.C. “Where?” we asked in desperate unison. “A hotel ... I’ll get you the name,” he replied. That didn’t sound strange. After all, some of the best restaurants in the city claim hotels as their permanent residence. Consider haute-cuisine icon Citronelle at The Latham and the eerily perfect CityZen at The Mandarin. He returned with a flyer that showed the new location: the Marriott Courtyard at Scott Circle. The owners of the Marriott property, devotees of the Rehoboth restaurant, encouraged executive chef and owner Kevin Reading to replace the existing hotel café/diner restaurant with Nage D.C.
The sign above the dramatic black curtains that frame the entrance to the restaurant’s new branch reads “Nage: An East Coast Eatery.” Nage (pronounced “nahdge”) is a trendy term for broth, inspired from the French nager — to swim. Chef David Hamer, who is taking over the kitchen from Reading, explained that many D.C. restaurants don’t have a regional personality: “We are proud of being on the East Coast and cooking the foods that express the flavors of the region.”
Hamer has spent his whole life in East Coast kitchens. Raised in Baltimore the ninth of 10 children, his family owned several restaurants along the Eastern Shore. “I was conscripted in to kitchen service at the age of 14 so I have a lot of experience creating unique dishes using local products.”
Creativity is a word that defines the Nage dining experience. Sitting at the small bar at the far end of the restaurant adjacent to the open kitchen, a colorful chalkboard crowded with daily food and drink specials demands your attention. Bartender Matthew, who has the presence of a seasoned croupier, promotes all of the unique libations. The Ooh La Candy, an eccentric blend of silver rum, fresh basil, lychee fruit, cranberry, triple sec and fresh lime, is pleasantly reminiscent of Dum Dum lollipops. Other artistic expressions include the Pear-Gyn Rug (Bombay gin, pear essence and fresh lime) and the White Cheetah (Stoli vanilla vodka, chai tea, cream, caramel).
The bar offers a unique tasting menu for $10 that is a must. Each night the kitchen chooses three portions of an appetizer or entrée and the bar team selects three wines to complement them. A shaved fennel salad with a Mas Neuf Rose was a refreshing summer coupling. A white grape and avocado gazpacho salad was delicious enough to be enjoyed alone, but reached even greater heights when paired with a meritage white from Australia (Kiss Chasey 2006). Sea salt-smoked mission figs and risotto, rich and savory, was harmonized by an equally smoky and chewy Benzinger Syrah. Acknowledging my obvious gratification, Matthew expressed sympathy. “I know. I was going to be a history teacher until I tasted Kevin’s food.” The tasting menu is a fun and inexpensive way to sample food and wine selections — a service more restaurants should feature.
Walking from the bar to dining tables allows one to fully appreciate the seductive ambiance of the room. Bright persimmon dominates, accented by muted panels of ecru and olive. Glass lamps glowing orange provide a gentle light, giving the room an almost bordello-like quality. It is impossible to imagine the space as it existed years ago, home to the National Rifle Association’s headquarters, complete with shooting range.
The permanent menu is limited to dishes that are favorites of the Rehoboth faithful, such as pan-roasted mussels with chorizo, smoked onion, roasted garlic and wheat beer in a tomato broth; vanilla seared scallops with parsnips and brown butter; and crispy roast half duckling with butternut squash spatzel and kirsch. Their most popular entrée, seafood à la Nage, is an oceanic tour de force. Lobster meat, shrimp, calamari, mussels and scallops “swim” in a rich lobster and saffron broth. Fresh tomato and green and white asparagus add pitch-perfect color and texture to the delectable brew.
Hamer and the D.C. team’s creativity and dexterity are best showcased in their nightly specials. “Kevin gives us creative freedom. The [daily special] board is our playground. But I’m not into the sport of molecular gastronomy that is popular now — things like presenting dishes suspended by lasers and making asparagus taste like grapes,” Hamer said. His creations, then, are imaginative without being outlandish.
Arctic char was presented in a neon-green pool of tomatillo-and-cucumber gazpacho made with honeydew melon and Serrano chiles. Lump crab and red onion rounded out the balanced sweet-and-sour selection. Wild boar (inspired by but not made from the recently slain 1,051-pound creature in Alabama) was served in rustic fashion with fingerling potatoes, carrots and chive. The truffled mac ’n’ cheese, a wickedly indulgent blend of parmesan, mascarpone, ricotta, sautéed onions and truffle oil, is responsible for expanded waistlines around the city. Despite its quadruple-digit calorie count, the dish will overwhelm your willpower.
William Powell observed, “Dessert is the most important stage of the meal since it will be the last your guests remember before they pass out all over the table.” Pastry Chef “Miss Yvette” Odemns’s offerings clearly reflect that conviction. Flan Tres Leches, a simple and seamless combination of evaporated, whole and condensed milk, was artfully accented with fresh mango, blueberry, cantaloupe, coconut and mint. Sweet-potato tamale with ancho chili corn ice cream and bourbon caramel was a wonderfully original creation not for the faint of heart. Most restaurants overlook the importance of quality coffee; not so at Nage. Galen, the graceful general manager, personally oversees the blend each night according to his mood.
If you are in search of a go-to restaurant where you can celebrate a special occasion or simply create one, try Nage D.C. You too will become a disciple.
1600 Rhode Island Ave. NW (Scott Circle)
Marriott Courtyard Embassy Row
Washington, D.C. 20036