By Amanda McDougall - 04/29/10 12:00 AM EDT
When you’re Padma Lakshmi, you don’t eat just anywhere. The host of TV’s “Top Chef,” in town for the taping of the franchise’s latest season, was tucked into a booth at Westend Bistro when the restaurant’s famed silver-top culinary director, Eric Ripert, was a guest judge on the show a couple of weeks ago.
Celebrity dishing aside, Ripert is something of a god in the chef world. But long before the always well-tanned French chef was sweating under the camera lights, he was sweating mirepoix in some of the top kitchens in the world. Ripert is best-known as the genius behind Manhattan’s four-star Le Bernardin restaurant. But he’s no stranger to Washington. Ripert worked under legendary chef Jean-Louis Palladin at Jean-Louis restaurant in the Watergate Hotel in the early ’90s. The chef returned to D.C. in late 2007 when he opened Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Don’t expect to see the Frenchman cooking in the semi-open kitchen, though. These days, many of the chefs in Ripert’s echelon appoint a talented deputy to serve on the front line in their far-flung kitchens. At Westend Bistro, that officer is Chef de Cuisine Joe Palma, a Ripert protégé.
Palma acquires anywhere from 75 to 90 percent of his produce from farmers markets and an Amish co-op. The menu downplays its locally farmed products, yet Palma boasts that the salad greens are the best he’s ever gotten — “better than what we used to get at Le Bernardin,” he says.
One salad of sorts is called molten goat cheese, but it’s primarily composed of roasted red and yellow beets with a petite pile of greens. The dish title is a bit of a misnomer. There are a few goat-cheese balls on the salad, encrusted with spiced pecans, but they aren’t lava-like upon arrival. Warm, yes. Molten, no.
In the same vein, Palma’s crab cake is a quietly modern take on the traditional breaded-and-fried version. It’s a softly molded pile of cream-sauced lump crab meat topped with cromesqui, which are breaded-and -fried capsules of warm béarnaise sauce spiced with just a hint of Old Bay seasoning. The flavors of the dish are good, but it’s the experience of breaking open the cromesqui that makes it worth ordering.
The grilled baby octopus is a pretty little dish that packs a lot of flavor from lemony smashed chickpeas and chorizo-nero vinaigrette. Its tangle of five-inch tentacles is not for the cephalopod-phobic, but they are perfectly tender and a gorgeous purple in color (though they could have a bit more char on them). If bivalves are more your speed, go for the Virginia oyster pan roast. One of the best items on the menu, this dish is built with thick slices of lightly grilled bread; a vermouth-infused cream sauce; steamed clams; mussels; and fat, jiggly oysters perched on top. The bread sops up the delicately flavored sauce and transforms into a custard-like sponge.
Entrees on the Bistro Classics side of the menu are no-frills iterations of traditional bistro fare. Steak Frites, the restaurant’s top-seller, is sold as either an eight-ounce flatiron or a full-size ribeye. It’s cooked accurately to the customer’s preference and served simply with a hefty dose of egg-enriched red wine béarnaise sauce and a sprinkling of chopped parsley. The truffled french fries are crisp and hot, with just a hint of truffle. The fish burger is a lightly breaded-and-fried striped bass patty with saffron aioli served on a fat kaiser roll with a side of greens. It’s more flavorful than it looks.
The roasted chicken isn’t the most striking plate, with its varied shades of brown, but it’s a standout for flavor and execution. The half-chicken is pan-roasted and moist from leg to breast, and the vegetables (parsnips, carrots and turnips) are caramelized and sweet. The pan gravy is so rich it’s almost cheesy-tasting, but it’s no cheese creating that luxurious depth of flavor. Palma cooks the base of the sauce with chicken livers, gizzards and cognac, to great effect. Don’t let the innards deter you; the end result is a buttery pan gravy that sings with savor.
The chef’s shrimp and grits are evidence of his southerly background. The shrimp are cooked with a spicy chorizo sausage and slightly smoky pepper called Aleppo. The spices infuse the bouillabaisse sauce with a nicely attenuated heat that works its way through the creaminess of the grits. Although the grits are borderline-soupy one night, the texture doesn’t detract from the overall success of the dish, with its bright orange, spicy-salty sauce and plump shrimp.
The barbecue lamb is Palma’s favorite dish, and for good reason. The lamb is succulent and tender, and the vibrant pickled watermelon salad served with it provides a refreshing contrast. The dish is an inspired recent addition to the menu, and one that obscures its modern cooking techniques. Palma constructs a customized piece of meat by layering several pieces of an uncommon, thin cut of lamb from the rib bones; he uses an enzyme to make the layers stick together. The chef cooks the lamb sous-vide for 12 hours and finishes it on the grill just before serving. A labor of love, to be sure, but the end results are so good, it’s worth it.
Not all menu items are quite as work-intensive for the kitchen as the lamb, but they could use perhaps a bit more affection. The skate Provençal looked sad one night, limp on a bed of too few vegetables. Additionally, the salmon with baby radishes, while lush, was tragically all pink, under-garnished and -seasoned. The sauces for both the skate and salmon were watery and lacking in flavor; the skate’s barigoule had barely a lick of wine or lemon, as it should have, and the salmon’s horseradish jus lacked the zing you’d expect from the name. The chef happened to be off that evening (the same dishes looked much more perky the night the chef was in residence). But a chef’s night off isn’t an excuse for poor performance from the kitchen.
You most likely won’t see Lakshmi in the warmly lit dining room at Westend Bistro, but you could glimpse Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — who lives in the nearby Ritz-Carlton condos — nestled in a corner over a bowl of that oyster pan roast. Westend Bistro isn’t the newest, most tweeted-about restaurant by any means, but it’s worth putting on — or back on — your culinary radar.