The Hill: Iconic Restaurant Keeps it Classic
Location: Charlie Palmer Steak, DC
By Amanda Grace Johnson
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Charlie Palmer's recent "Top Chef" appearance seems to have quickly pulled his classy Capitol Hill steakhouse back into the D.C. spotlight — on one recent weeknight, the sleek establishment is bustling like a brand-new hotspot.
It's a beautiful crowd — adorned in black cocktail sheaths, tailored Armani suits, akoya pearls and Tiffany cufflinks — and a venue to match. En route to the dining room, one can't help but gawk at a towering glass box, housing hundreds upon hundreds of impressive wines, that hovers above a glistening fountain anchored by a smattering of earth-tone stones. The dining room's grand floor-to-ceiling windows paint a picturesque scene of Capitol Hill at night.
In a city that's certainly not lacking for power-lunch-style steakhouses, deciding which to frequent isn't always easy. Morton's, Smith & Wollensky, Bobby Van's and Capital Grille fill traditional niches; J&G, BLT Steak and Bourbon Steak hew more to the trendy side.
Enter Charlie Palmer as the perfect fusion of those two sides. There's something for everyone here; on any given night, the place is studded with both senators in suits and tourists toting fanny packs and strollers. And they're all here for one thing: the food.
And what great food it is. It's not just about the steak, either. Most of the menu items are themed by that marriage of trend and tradition that so perfectly personifies the restaurant.
Take the braised short rib ravioli. Pouches of tender homemade pasta stuffed with savory shredded meat aren't tossed with an Italian sauce, but instead float in a delicate soy sauce-infused broth that sings with Asian influence. Earthy mushrooms and baby artichokes fill in the flavor spectrum when paired with beef and pasta. Were we not under the watchful eye of our attentive server, I'd sneak a swipe of my bread in the juices.
Classic clam chowder gets a textural boost from supple bits of lobster; tart local peaches counterbalance rich, buttery foie gras. The allegedly seven-vegetable salad appears to yield only six upon close examination — the obvious lettuce, dainty green beans, radish, shaved carrot, perfectly tender-crisp asparagus and bright artichokes — but light sherry-shallot dressing and a parmesan crisp make up for the missing ingredient.
Other first-course options include a $78 ice shellfish platter with lobster, blue prawns, crab cocktail and oysters; a chilled local corn soup with Maryland blue crab and tarragon; and a spicy yellowfin tuna cannelloni with avocado and ponzu.
After the exquisite appetizers offer a promising start, the following entrees don't disappoint. A medium-rare filet redefines the term melt-in-your-mouth; a hearty ribeye boasts outstanding flavor. Both cuts of meat are bursting with juices, soaring beyond top-notch and evoking that wicked feeling of indulgence all good steaks summon.
The steaks are trailed by a parade of house-made mustards, including tarragon, whole-grain, lemon, horseradish and Dijon. I find myself reaching for the horseradish style most often, with its gentle but still significant heat, while my dining companion seems to favor the zingy pop of the whole-grain variety. And though the mustards are a tasty touch, the luscious beef stands just fine on its own — once we've tried all the sauces, we both return to devouring the steaks sans dressing.
The menu includes several other cuts of beef: hanger steak, New York strip and porterhouse-for-two, to name a few. And for those non-red-meat eaters accompanying their carnivorous friends and family, Charlie Palmer offers entrees of halibut, cod, lobster, veal, lamb, chicken and a vegetarian-friendly tortelloni.
Side items prove more than just meat accessories. Creamed spinach is conventional but flawless, and pillows of gnocchi are tossed with some of the best Parmesan cheese I've tasted — reaffirming the idea that sometimes simple, basic food can run the show. It's a fine line to walk, though, as roasted asparagus arrives on the bland side and broccoli rabe with chili and Parmesan prove thoroughly unexciting. Other sides available include several iterations of potato — fries, fingerling potatoes, potato puree and twice-baked potatoes — and mushrooms, roasted squash and zucchini.
Wines are most certainly not to be missed here, with an astounding collection of bottles and a small but well-selected by-the-glass offering. I'm sad when consuming the last drop of an elegant California Malbec, and my dining companion drains his 2005 pinot a little more quickly than I'm comfortable with (though I don't blame him — when he gives me a sip I contemplate keeping it for myself).
A tiny tray of complimentary sweets is enough for dessert after the decadent meal preceding it. Pistachio brittle and dark chocolate truffles dusted with cocoa powder prove irresistible, no matter how stuffed this particular diner is. Those wishing to go for the full experience can choose between a classic vanilla cheesecake, crème brulee trio, Meyer lemon tart and several other desserts.
Finally, the bill reminds me that I've just eaten a $40 steak, but then I think back over the decadent past two hours and beam sleepily, remembering that sometimes a special meal like this is worth every cent.