Tonight Smithsonian had a sponsored dinner at Laboratorio. Each month they sponsor a dinner at different restaurants throughout the area; tonight they returned to Laboratorio for the third time in the past three years.
My wife and I participated in this last year learning that there are several seats in the 30 seat dining room (three communal tables of 10 to 12 each) that are preferable. At table 7 the two end seats facing the open kitchen are within ten feet of Roberto Donna when he assembles and finishes the dishes for the evening. I sat in the seat closest to him. (Poor him!!!)
Typically Laboratorio is 12 courses for $110 on weekends; for this dinner the all inclusive price of $300 included 8 courses and several "tastes" along with wine selected by both Gail Foreman (the host) and Roberto.
There were three "great" dishes. For perspective this is one more than we have had in two meals at the French Laundry and the equal of several two and three starred restaurants in Europe.
The first course was a salad of white asparagus with julienned artichokes and beets with langoustine and black truffle dressing. Perhaps four bites total this was "precious," fresh and an excellent introduction to the meal that followed.
The second course was an innovative roasted duck liver "custard" with poached pears in the style of a creme brulee, i.e. with a burnt sugar crust on top. This was an absolutely sensational dish. Just superb! As good as any dish that I might have encountered anywhere-I cannot say enough about its flavor, texture, it's originality.
Following this was a cauliflower soup with crab timbale, chives, prosciutto and yellow radish. A bowl had a "lump" of crab (the crab timbale) in the center of it and the soup was spooned over it for the presentation. There was depth in the flavor of the soup along with the contrast of the cold crab timbale to the warm liquid of the soup. An excellent dish which continued what was to be a truly outstanding meal.
The fourth course was tortelloni (made in house) of ricotta and pecorino cheese with butter and sage. Perfectly executed pasta, rich with a great deal of depth to the buttery flavor. Just superb.
The fifth course was the best of the night: the best risotto that I have had in the United States, perhaps the best that I have had in any restaurant anywhere. "Risotto with red and yellow peppers and Speck" (similar to proscuitto). Chicken stock, white wine, violane nano, onion along with red and yellow pepper puree and minced red and yellow peppers along with reggiano all came together for a truly great dish, equal to any taste of any risotto that I have had in any restaurant anywhere. Ambrosial, I thought I actually heard several people sigh at their first bite! Roberto Nailed the texture! Nailed it! Just perfect. I had about five bites and not a one was less enjoyable than the preceding one. In fact each successive bite may have actually increased my love of this dish. A great risotto, a truly great dish!
Roasted lobster tail with red wine sauce, pearl onions and baby fennel followed which was another outstanding entree. Texture along with contrasting flavors entered into this with the red wine sauce bring all of them together. Wonderful, perhps one of the best lobster dishes that I have had in years.
This was followed with course seven, another savory featuring roasted baby lamb with baby leeks, fingerling potatoes and rosemary sauce. Again, depth of flavor but a bit dry for the texture of the lamb. Not quite on the level of most of the others, still, better than what one would find in most any other restaurant in the D. C. area.
The dessert was the weak spot of the night: mascarpone coffee cream served with chocolate mousse and esperesso sauce. This was very good but, for me, not on the level of the many outstanding courses that preceded it.
There were also several other "tastes" that rounded out the three hour dining experience.
Roberto was extremely tolerant of me. I cannot emphasize this enough. As everyone on this board knows I talk too much and have too many opinions. But I have been going to Galileo since it opened on P street in the early '80's and was fortunate enough to have been one of the first to sit at his chef's table in the late '80's when he then cooked specifically for this table. I have also made at least 15 or more dishes out of his cookbook which I believe to have a number of recipes equal to any offered in any book anywhere. At his best Roberto Donna is a national treasure, a James Beard Award winner and the equal of any chef in Italy.
Tonight he showed his strengths.
Still, I prefer Maestro overall. He and I talked about this. In fact he and Michel Richard went to Maestro last Friday night. (Michel's son works in Laboratorio as a sous chef.) His comments were extremely interesting. He said that for him to compete with the Versace china, the $200 porcelain column for the Kobe beef entree, Reidel stemware as well as Reidel duck decanters used in the decanting of most wines, he/Michel would have to charge $175 to 200 prix fixe. The metal sculptures on each table along with the spectacular style which I have commented on in the past-this all comes at a real price. A price which according to Roberto the Ritz Carlton absorbs for the hotel rooms it sells and the prestige it brings them. To do this with a stand alone, independently owned restaurant would be virtually impossible. Still, he was not without criticism of the meal he was served there. (I have also had criticism of several of Maestro's dishes but to be totally honest I have and am also critical of some of what Galileo serves in comparison to Laboratorio. When we were walking out I noticed the risotto being served to several diners. It had nothing in common with what Roberto had personally prepared for us only an hour earlier. But neither was the risotto at Maestro, which also truly paled to Roberto's masterpiece.)
Laboratorio is almost a "K-Paul's/Cibreo" (Florence) of D. C. with its shared communal tables and fairly nondescript ambience. The real attraction-beyond the extraordinary food-are several seats close to the front and the ability to talk with him and watch the meals be prepared. The same is also available at Maestro with several of their tables although discussion with the chef is a virtual impossibility.
Overall the food served tonight at Laboratorio was easily the equal of not only Maestro but also any meal that I have had in three or four years anywhere. This includes Michelin starred restaurants in Italy. What Laboratorio lacks is the style and spectacular presentation of Maestro. I asked Roberto if he would be interested in doing his version of this, a 10 or 12 course meal for, say, 30 to 35 in a small somewhat luxurious dining room with Michelin "correct" service, exemplery crystal and porcelain and his answer was interesting. He said that he might have to charge $175 to 200 prix fixe for this. He felt that he could fill it five nights a week. But he didn't think that he would want to do it. He has already realized every goal, every title that any world class chef could want-he's a James Beard Award winner and the equal of any chef in America (perhaps Europe when he himself is cooking). This is a step that is just not necessary for him.
Maestro, for me, is still, overall, Washington's best restaurant. I prefer it to the Inn at Little Washington and Citronelle. Still, Roberto Donna, is a treasure. If he wanted and he set his mind to it he has the capability of presenting the finest not just in D. C. but perhaps the world. As it is much of his food is up to this. Not spectacular, there are no fireworks. But it is as good as you are going to eat anywhere, even Italy. We are lucky that we have him. He is a true gift to the city of Washington and to America.
Maestro, Laboratorio/Citronelle and then the Inn at Little Washington in that order for my selection as our best, then Le Relais. (I have not been to 2941 yet.) In fact to have a weekend with Laboratorio on one night and Maestro the next would be worthy of a fantasy weekend, one which everyone should be able to experience and judge for themselves what we are so fortunate to have. Perhaps Citronelle for Sunday just to compound the decision and add a few calories as well.
Monday the diet begins.