Darren McDonald is nervous as a cat, and he has good reason to be. It's opening night for Smith & Wollensky in the nation's capital and he's in charge. There's a full house and the top brass from New York are on hand. To make things worse, he's only been open for about two hours and his maitre'd has tipped him off that The Hill's restaurant reviewer and photographer have just arrived.
HOURS: Dinner: Mon.-Sat., 5 p.m.-11:30 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.-11 p.m.; Lunch and dinner in Wollensky's Grill: Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.
McDonald, who spent the last three months preparing for the launch of Smith & Wollensky's fifth and newest outpost -- the others are in Miami, Chicago, New Orleans and Las Vegas -- is concerned that it's too early to pass judgment on the latest entry in Washington's steak wars.
He's right, but not to worry. Everything goes smoothly -- the service is flawless, the turn-of-the-century polished brass and dark wood ambiance of the 10,000-square foot space is spectacular, the food is first rate, and everybody gets a 20 percent opening night discount.
In fact, if S&W lives up to its initial promise, it's bound to give Washington's other high-priced steak houses like the Palm and Sam & Harry's -- which are just up 19th Street -- as well as The Prime Rib, Max's of Washington, Morton's of Chicago and the Capital Grille, a run for their money.
"Washington is a hot restaurant city," says Alan Stillman, chairman and CEO of Smith & Wollensky's $100 million parent company, the New York Restaurant Group Inc., who's on hand for the opening. "It's one of the four or five major cities that we wanted to be in. That's why we're here."
Stillman, whose business card sports a bite out of the corner, clearly hopes to take a big bite out of the Washington area's $5.5 billion annual restaurant sales.
"It's not a question of reaching a saturation point," he said of the proliferation of high-end steak houses in D.C. "I don't think we're competing with the Palm any more than I Ricci," a reference to the Italian restaurant across the street from the Palm. "After all, 60 dollars is less than it costs for a good tie."
But even with the 20 percent discount, the bill for Photographer Michael Temchine and me comes to $67 a person, which is about $37 more than I pay for my ties, especially if I'd bought them at the Joseph Banks store that Smith & Wollensky moved into. But what the heck, the economy's booming and the Republicans want to use the record surplus for tax cuts, so why quibble about the hefty price ($33) of the gargantuan Cajun rib eye steak that Temchine orders.
It's a monster piece of meat, 28 ounces of dry aged prime beef, expertly carved and grilled to medium rare perfection by head Chef Tom Elbeshary, who later proudly gives me a tour of the aging room on the second floor and the chef's table for 12 in the middle of the bustling kitchen. Elbeshary, who worked with McDonald at S&W's first restaurant, opened in midtown New York in 1977, is just in from Las Vegas, where he opened a restaurant on the Strip.
Earlier, when I told Stillman that I intended to order fish -- a staple of my diet since undergoing heart surgery three months ago -- he was unfazed. "A third of our customers order fish," he says. "We pride ourselves on seafood."
My seafood is good, but nothing to be proud of. It's the fresh fish of the day, broiled Cajun-style halibut ($25.50) that's dusted with Cajun spices. But the spices are barely noticeable and the fish is a bit dry from over-cooking, although the fresh corn it rests on is delicious. I decide I should have ordered the grilled Atlantic salmon ($21.50) like Andrew Skale, a lawyer at a nearby table, did. But he tells me his is a bit dry also.
However, five of Skale's colleagues from Baker and Botts all rave about their filet mignons ($28.75). "This is phenomenal. It just melts in your mouth," says one. "The best steak I've had since Bryne's in Tampa," says another.
Having found no flaws in our appetizers of onion soup ($5.75) and the Wollensky salad of greens, button mushrooms and bacon ($7.25), Temchine and I finish our entrees -- actually, he took half his steak home -- and move on to dessert and coffee. My milk chocolate creme brulee and his ricotta cheesecake with raspberry sauce topping, both $6.75, are truly outstanding, and we can only eat a small part of the towering coconut cake that McDonald insists we try.
There's an extensive -- and expensive -- wine list, but few half bottles, so we settle for a glass of Washington state cabernet ($6.75), which is perfectly adequate. Smith and Wollensky also features a Grill Room with a more casual menu and lower prices for lunch and late night dining.
Since it was the restaurant's first night of operation, I won't give my usual rating of up to four Capitol domes, but if I did, I'd give it at least three. This may not be "a steak house to end all arguments," as a New York Times reviewer once called it (a quote reproduced on the menu), but it's definitely a contender.