Perhaps the restaurant with the most positive and glowing reviews of any over the past six months has been 2941 located in the rear of an office building backing to a small man made lake just off the beltway near Route 50.
Until the sun sets bartenders shade their eyes when you order and we noted several arriving diners change seats because of glare. With 30 foot floor to ceiling windows and an open "modern" (i.e. Spartan decor) dining room with light woods, off white painted walls and columns this is not a warm, intimate and inviting place to dine. The adjacent one hundred yard wide man made lake is only visible to tables fronting the windows (there are at least four) and a handful of tables outside on a small patio. For the rest of the cavernous room the lake is essentially nonexistent.
Overall the room is open, hot, glaring and frankly rather impersonal. My wife and I did not like it at all. In fact after all we had read this was THE disappointment of the last year!
A little after 8:00 when the sun set the ambience and our perception of it changed. The lighting dimmed appreciably. The dining room warmed, the lake became visible to more than just the window tables and the ceiling didn't seem quite so high, nor seemingly to dwarf the tables in the room. What had seemed like 150 seats now, realistically, became a more restrained setting of perhaps one hundred and a dining room that-for us-now had a personality to it along with a bit of character.
The food even began to taste better as a result. First, and most importantly is the bread. It is superb. Simply superb. Apricot pistachio, currant walnut rye, pumpernickel raisin, toasted hazelnut even bleu cheese-these are but five of fifteen incredible delicately crusty and flavorful breads presented at the table. Each table has small slices of four or five and the option of any of the fifteen listed. Along with softened country butter this is a wonderful, over the top way to start the evening. So much so that it even brighted our mood despite the glare of what must have been the brightest sun of the year shining precisely on our table...and a good part of the dining room.
There were four of us. We order four appetizers along with two "for the table." Butternut squash soup was a major disappointment. Just nothing special. Not intense, not especially flavorful, whatever stock was used was not cooked down very long. Comparing this to, say a butternut squash soup at the old Jimmy Sneed's Frog and Redneck in Richmond (a fair comparison given the expectations of this kitchen) was a real disappointment. Sneed, who once had trained under Jean Louis Palladin, was responsible for one of the best, most flavorfully intense soups I have ever had. Not so 2941. Pedestrian in contrast.
Fried Calamari and Zucchini were reminiscent of fritto misto in Italy. Three months ago I had fritto misto at Al Porto in Milan and six months ago I had this at Al Covo in Venice. Both are known for this as a specialty. 2941's were one step better than a Hawaiian restaurant in Manassas. A slam, yes. A disappointment, well, yes. They could have done much better.
And much better they did do with what I call a "Great Dish:" "Seared Yellowfin Tuna: three skewers with sake glaze and cubes of tuna tartare mixed with ginger and scallions." Aqua in San Francisco is known for its tuna tartare. This is a signature entree that sells for $19.50 and is just incredibly good. 2941's version was easily as good. In fact given the choice between the two I preferred 2941's. Three superb bites that would rival any restaurant on earth. Delicious. Anyone going should write this down and remember it. A GREAT dish.
"Grilled foie gras" was also amazingly good. In fact every bit as good as at the two Michelin starred Violon d'Ingris in Paris. Flavored with rhubarb, vanilla and sherry vinegar this was also a "Great Dish," equal to any that I have had anywhere.
Already, at the start of the meal, despite the absence of what we thought a "personality" for the restaurant, 2941 had two "Great Dishes" which for me put it immediately on par with many of the best restaurants I have ever been to.
Unfortunately from here it was straight downhill. In fact a vertical drop.
Carnaroli risotto with "a Gulf shrimp and tomato fondue" was less than pedestrian. Honestly, just not a big deal. Only Roberto Donna in his Laboratorio seems capable of making a great risotto. Maestro, 2941, Tosca, even his own Galileo have all struck out. Roberto makes a risotto equal to the best anywhere on earth. 2941 does not.
For the entrees we started with veal tenderloin and schnitzel which was served with Brussel sprouts, glazed cipollini onions and a green peppercorn sauce. This was very good.
It was. Just not better than very good. Probably on the level of a better dish at Colvin Run Tavern, the restaurant that this restaurant most closely resembles. (i.e. if you really like Colvin Run, especially the middle room, then you will fall in love with 2941 especially if you go after the sun sets).
Roasted lamb tenderloin and leg with "glazed potatoes, baby root vegetables and roasted garlic were also very good." Not special, not succulently, flavorfully, memorably tender, just very good.
Caramelized sea scallops were five Diver scallops "with wild mushrooms and champagne sauce." There was not a lot of flavor to each scallop. The two bites of each, frankly, resembled a scallop that was frozen not ones that were fresh. Having had fresh Diver scallops served in their shell in Europe as well as at Gary Danko's in San Francisco these were at least two if not three rungs on theladder lower. (I'm using standards like this because reviews tend to imply that this restaurant should be nominated for a James Beard Award as among America's best new restaurants.)
Dessert was interesting. Ice Cream was decent, flavorful and creamy. Not on the level of Kinkead's or Four and Tweny Blackbirds, both of which have great house made ice cream.
The dark chocolate mousse cake with coffee cinnamon ice cream and hot chocolate sauce was very good at $9.00 but no better.
Overall with two bottles of wine off of a very limited but adequate wine list with 100% markups (more than fair since many restaurants charge much more)(Chateau St. Jean merlot and a South Afican Cab) the bill for four was just shy of $400.00.
With the sun still out we would not go back. With the sun having set we would, but not as a first or even a second choice. Adequate but not special service for us this felt like an outlying office building with a restaurant in the rear of it. Despite all of the hyperbole and raves about the ambience we were sincerely disappointed. Much of the food was a disappointment, too, considering the hype.
This is NOT a special occasion restaurant like L'Auberge Chez Francois. It is not a spectacular Michelin "Starred style" restaurant like Maestro. Probably more in league with Colvin Run and some of D. C.'s better restaurants.
Still, for this out of the way, nondescript bottom of a high rise location for this restaurant to survive it has to be a true destination spot. At the least on the level of Le Relais (on a better night and these are inconsistent at best!) or L'Auberge. We had two great dishes. We didn't care for the overall ambience (despite what everyone else has said) especially before the sun set, the wine list was very restricted and the food, overall, just very good.
I would like to believe that this restaurant will survive. But based on what we found this Saturday night it's going to need more than what we found in this highly competitive, economically soft environment.
Lastly, there is no personality, no one at the front desk who can drive it. No Roberto Donna, no Michel Richard, no one with an engaging, charming, kinetic personality to help sell the restaurant and make each individual customer feel truly special. There was no one going to each table or even a select few to help "sell" the restaurant, helping shape it's "personality." Our waiters were good but lacked the polish of D. C.'s best or even Northern Virginia's best who Maestro seems to have cornered the market on.
This is a good restaurant, a very good one certainly on the level of Kinkead's Colvin Run Tavern. It is also fairly priced for the level it is on. But I don't think it's good enough to overcome it's horrible location in the long run. Nor for some such as Dinwiddie who I have tried to talk into driving to Virginia from Maryland. For this it must be truly exceptional. A real destination not available in Bethesda or across the river. And it's not. Picturesque, yes. But not picturesque and not special enough for a second visit nor for a drive around the Beltway.
I am sorry but I had expected to like 2941 much more than I did. Arriving at 6:45 as we did the sun drenched, high ceilinged "modern" open ambience-for us-was a turnoff and a perspective that we couldn't get past. We agreed that it just-for us-wasn't warm, personable or inviting. Even after the sun set.