I know Washington, DC is just nuts for Chef Eric Ziebold, the mastermind behind the phenomenal Cityzen. While his latest project, Sou'Wester, is really a couple notches down on the "fine dining" scale, it has received so much hype that I just wanted to give my impressions/formal review of it, partly to dispel all that hype.
Source of the review (with photos): http://www.thefoodbuster.com/souwester/
Located in the Mandarin Oriental at 1330 Maryland Avenue Southwest Washington
About $40-$50 for 3 courses
There are very few chefs in the DC area with the reputation of Eric Ziebold, the still young culinary mastermind behind Cityzen, one of DC’s finest fine dining establishments. I would expect no less from a man who served as the first sous chef of the French Laundry, perhaps the most famous restaurant in the nation.
So what is a legend like Ziebold thinking in bringing simple, down-home, Southern cooking to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, right across from its far higher-brow cousin, Cityzen? That’s exactly what I had to find out.
I got the chance last week with a couple of very skeptical friends, Mark and Jameer. Both from Southern African American families, Mark and Jameer are what I would consider the authorities on Soul Food and Southern cooking. They’ve been looking for about a year now for a place in DC that can satisfy their lust for fatty, rich Mac and Cheese, deliciously crisp Fried Chicken, and mouth-wateringly buttery Hush Puppies, but to no avail. And they didn’t think they were going to find such wonders at a fancy, high-brow hotel restaurant, no matter who directed it.
Surprisingly for a hotel restaurant, though, Sou’Wester seems very down to earth. There’s none of that extraordinary, over-the-top modernity you see in other places, as the restaurant boasts a rather simple design scheme, with all white walls and tables of wood that are plain but very polished. It might sound boring at first, but there’s so much natural lighting coming in from the large windows that it actually looks quite cheerful.
Sou’Wester does, however, have a grandiose side to it. Remember, this restaurant is located in one of the best hotels in DC, so expect “simple” to be taken to its logical limit. And that comes through nowhere better than in the view. Sou’Wester is located right across from the lake, and it takes full advantage of that, providing a large, nearly panoramic view of the whole river area, dotted with boats and yachts. It’s a lovely sight, especially during the summer time
That type of grandeur is found even in the little things, too. The seating is very spacious, so that, even though you’re in a simple soul food restaurant, you feel like you have some privacy. The seating is also extremely comfortable, with a long velvety couch running with miniature back-pillows running across one wall. To put off the finishing touch, huge cubic basket-like lamps run across the top.
As a side note, there tend to be a lot of kids here, I guess from all the families staying in the hotel, so you might be stuck with loud, annoying brats once in a while. I say that because it’s exactly what happened to me, and I can imagine some people having their meals ruined because of it. It is family friendly, though.
As for the service, it’s very much at hotel restaurant standards, so it’s quite a bit better than what you’d find at most Southern-cooking restaurant. As soon as I walked in, I was greeted cheerfully, asked if I’d like a newspaper, asked if I’d like a seat in the sun or not, etc. The waiters can be just a bit unhelpful at times, though. For example, I asked my waitress for some recommendations, and she more or less stumbled through, repeating exactly what was already written on the menu. But make no mistake, the service is professional in most regards, asking when you’d like specific dishes like sides, or pulling tables to allow you to sit in, etc.
None of that matters, though, if the food can’t live up to the hype. Far too often hotels will cover up mediocre food with a façade of service and ambience, and that’s especially the case with something like Southern cooking that tends to be so cheap. Thankfully, Sou’Wester doesn’t fall into that trap, instead serving up food that is of consistently good quality, even if it isn’t the best. Nothing in my meal really astounded me, but at the same time nothing repelled me either. This is Southern cooking done simple and right. Even my friends, the Southern cooking experts, admitted to that.
Part of the charm, too, is that Sou’Wester doesn’t just stick to the classics, instead integrating them with a few more modern re-touches. You can find all the traditional trimmings like cornbread and biscuits, Fried Chicken, and Hush Puppies, but you also find Stuffed’s Pig’s with Frisee Salad, or Snapper in Chowder with Bacon. That type of variety really goes a long way in setting Sou’Wester apart from the countless other nameless Southern restaurants in the city, showing that Southern cooking, while integrating simple ingredients, doesn’t have to be one-dimensional.
At the same time, the restaurant doesn’t really nail any dish, except for the incredible Hush Puppies. Every dish seems to have some fundamental, simple error that holds it back in some way. The bread is served lukewarm, the meat and fish are too salty, there isn’t much banana in the banana cream pie, and in general the ingredients in the dishes don’t always synergize well. These problems don’t quite destroy the dishes, but none of those dishes really stand out as they could. Mark and Jameer were, unsurprisingly, even more critical than I was, frequently calling the dishes bland or boring.
That said, the Hush Puppies were the one phenomenal component of the meal, and that’s the one area where all three of us were in absolute agreement. Really, they’re the type of dish that is so good that it can single-handedly draw out customers, and deservedly so. They’re hot, moist, buttery, crispy, and salty sweet—you just can’t find anything like it in the DC area. In fact, Mark and Jameer went so far as to say they’re comparable to real Southern cooking, a first from their mouths.
That really doesn’t save the overall experience, though. While the restaurant does everything well, it never really elevates Southern cooking as it means to do. All three of us left knowing that, while we’d remember the Hush Puppies, Sou’Wester really wasn’t the end of our search for real Southern cooking.
What I had:
Trio of Complementary Breads with Honey Butter: An overall nice range of bread, but nothing really stands out. As a side note, the honey butter is delicious, mixing the best of the creamy and the sweet. It really redeems the bread. 8.0/10
- Biscuit Bread: Very doughy and extremely soft, practically crumbling in your mouth. But it’s very salty, so that you really need the butter to give it some flavor. It’s not served hot either, and comes off as quite dull. 7.0/10
- Cornbread: Much better than the last. It’s again not served hot, but I really like the flavor here. It’s very moist, with a decent butteriness to it (though it could be better), but it still retains a satisfying grittiness. I think there are even very small actual pieces of corn in it for an added burst. Regardless, it really has a pronounced corn taste to it that is lacking in other breads. 9.0/10
Hush Puppies with Honey Butter: This is what I was waiting for with the cornbread! These are so delicious that they just make your mouth pucker in glee. They’re little fried cornbread balls, served nice and hot like they should be. The crust itself is very crunchy, with just a bit of oddly satisfying salty sweetness to it. Again, as with the cornbread, you really get an intense corn taste here, and you can practically taste the cornmeal off the crust. Moreover, the delicious crunch of the crust combines with the more buttery grittiness of the cornbread for a fantastic texture that really leaves a whole lot of butter across your mouth. The cold, rich, sweet honey butter just adds an added layer of flavor to the already complex mix. The one negative is that these can feel just a bit greasy, not settling well. 9.8/10
Stuffed Pig’s Foot w/ Frisee Salad: I really like the boldness, freshness, and synergy of the flavors here. My first impression of the frisee salad was that it was far too bitter and just a bit salty, but that leafy, crunchy, bitterness does actually help to balance out the savory pork, though it’s not my favorite salad. As for the pig’s foot, it’s stuffed with pure pork—and it’s a lot of stuffing. In that sense, it’s packed with flavor. The stuffing, moreover, is cooked excellently, with a great tenderness to it, and with very little fattiness surprisingly. That said, it was a bit dull, without much flavor to it. The pig’s foot skin is great, though, as it has a much bolder flavor to it—not overly greasy, but savory and salty. It also has a good bit of chewiness to it. My one problem with the combo is that it’s very hard to cut, and the stuffing tends to fall out completely. Finally, and this is the real catch to the dish, there’s a delicious yellow sauce with what felt like a bit of mustard and some sweet chili pepper, a combo I felt was absolutely delicious, counterbalancing the savory, fattier, heavier pork. 8.5/10
Sauteed Red Snapper (Mashed Potatoes, Bacon, Bay Chowder): The snapper here is delicious. It’s very nicely cooked and is very tender, though I do think it’s a bit mushy from being overcooked a bit. And the skin is crisped to perfection so that it provides a really nice crunch in every bite. The fish itself has just a bit of salt, but not too much flavor to it, which sounds like a big negative, but considering that the chowder is so flavorful it’s not so much of a problem. The chowder can, however, get very salty, especially because it has so much bacon in it. Really, when it’s combined with the fish that saltiness can dominate the whole dish. On the more positive side, it’s more of a broth, so it’s very light, and because it has so much bacon, tomato, and onion, you get a lot of sweetness and savoriness. The mashed potatoes, too, are very good, but nothing extraordinary. The focus here isn’t so much on butteriness as on the potato flavor, so they’re on the lumpy side, with slightly unmashed potato chunks in them. I actually like the style, because you get a lot of flavor, and they don’t sacrifice much in smoothness either. They’re also a great counterbalance to the saltiness of the chowder. Overall, though, the ingredients, specifically the fish and the chowder, just don’t synergize very well. 7.7/10
Banana Cream Pie (Classic Banana Tart with Custard): This is a fantastic banana cream
pie, but still not quite as good as they made it out to be. The problem is that it’s just a bit bland. The vast majority of the pie is a huge layer of what tastes like flavored whipped cream. It’s delicious, and very light. It also has a lot of banana flavor for a simple whipped cream, but there’s only so much you can do, and it can get a bit dull. The bananas really come out in the custard layer near the bottom of the pie, but it’s so small relative to the whole pie that you don’t taste much of it. I do like, though, that the pie comes with a large serving of thick, caramel sauce, which adds a lot of very rich, heavy sweetness to balance out the lightness of the cream. Finally, the crust was a mixed bag. It was very thin, but it was surprisingly hard to cut. And it just didn’t add much to the pie because of its thinness, though it was nicely doughy. 9.0/10
Ambience: 9.0/10 (For something at this price)
Overall Verdict: 8.6/10
Hope that helps!
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