At a restaurant where most of the entrees are $20-$30, you wouldnt expect to see one of the diners tearing apart a meal with her bare hands. The dish she ordered-shrimp with parmesan grits-sounded like it would be classy and comfortable all at once. Yet, like a couple of dishes on the menu at Greenwood, an upscale uptown restaurant, it sounded better than it worked.
Piled atop the grits in a large bowl were three enormous shrimp, with their heads, shell, legs, and tail still attached. The woman at the next table who had ordered the dish did not quite know how to get all this off the shrimp without using her hands, and was encouraged to do so by one of the servers. So she began the work, but did not know what to do with all the junk. Shrimp heads are not tasty, so she couldnt be blamed for not wanting to put them back into her bowl. Eventually she asked for, and received, a plate upon which to pile the refuse. She emerged triumphant from her struggle, but with fishy hands for the rest of the evening, no doubt.
It was an amusing scene, but one which my companions and I looked upon with trepidation, as one of us had ordered the same dinner. Though we were confident we could handle the job with the proper tools, we would prefer not to. So we asked that the chef de-junk the shrimp before it reached our table. She refused. To his credit, our waiter offered to do it at the table, but, reluctant to impose, we told him we would be able to accomplish the task with a knife and fork-once someone remembered to give us them.
After all that, how did it taste? Dull. The seafood lacked the natural sweetness the best fresh shrimp exhibit. The whole dish needed salt and the grits needed more enlivening cheese.
I linger on this shrimp episode because it illustrates three shortcomings of a restaurant that could, perhaps, be exceptional were they to be fixed. First, it seemed like no one working at the restaurant had tried to eat the dish before putting it on the menu and serving it to customers. If they had, they would have realized that its lackluster flavors couldnt justify the fishery work at the table.
Second, the servers were inattentive to the needs of the customer. Good servers will anticipate their customers needs, not wait to be reminded to bring plates and silverware.
Third, the kitchen failed to honor a modest request, displaying a poor attitude to its clientele. The chef, Carole Greenwood, has likened such requests to standing over the shoulder of Jackson Pollock, saying More blue over there, less red over here (quote from a Washington Flyer article). While I am always one to admire principled artistry in cooking, and to urge people to be open-minded to the unfamiliar innovations of new chefs, this is a false analogy. The point of good art is not necessarily to please-it may instead simply express or represent something, or perhaps even aim to upset or provoke those who view it. But dinner is meant to be enjoyed, and that means that good kitchens take into account the reasonable preferences of those they feed.
Despite these problems, there are some menu items that make a visit to Greenwood worthwhile. Apparently, the menu changes frequently, but it seems like the meat dishes are reliable. The rack of lamb was a real winner. A generous, meaty portion, the mild and perfectly cooked lamb was served over French lentils and matchsticks of bacon.
Among the appetizers, the mussels, served in a sauce of red wine and garlic had us turning our heads trying to determine the source of that wonderful perfume. An update on the classic capresé pleased the vegetarian in our party: fresh mozzarella and tomatoes, graced with fine olive oil, pesto, and a sun-dried tomato sauce. On the other hand, the grilled greens and nuts turned out to be an over-smoky and over-soggy pile of chard. We wanted to try the cheddar and horseradish apple fondue, but despite being printed on the daily menu, it was unavailable (this was before 8pm, too).
Desserts choices, including a lemon crème brulee and hot fudge sundae, didnt sound interesting enough to try, so we didnt. Instead we lingered over the last drops of our wine, a Burgundy from the mostly obscure, Burgundy-dominated list. We had to pour it ourselves throughout the meal, but personally I do not mind that. Besides, despite the intended seriousness of the cooking, Greenwood has a casual feel. Wearing a jacket, I was on the cusp of being overdressed.
The casualness extends to the décor and atmosphere of the restaurant. When we arrived for our reservations, very few tables were occupied, and no one was sitting at the restaurants communal table-a large, long 20--seater dividing the dining room in half. Red walls, wooden beams, interesting art, good jazz, and lightweight dividing curtains all make for an inviting setting. Strangely, we were seated at a table right next to one of the few full tables. And when I say right next to, I mean that our small table was about 5 inches from our neighbors small two-top. For those of you who have been to Obelisk and think you know what I am talking about, think again: these tables were closer. It felt rather awkward to sit down so close to a strange couple in a near-empty restaurant, with other tables open that were not so close together. I asked the hostess if we could sit elsewhere, but alas, we were told, all the other tables were reserved and would be full shortly.
Even if this were true, it was the wrong thing for the restaurant to do. With a simple, poor decision about where to seat a customer, the restaurant has to work so much harder to make the experience there enjoyable. In addition, those curtains which looked so charming from the front door, and which to their credit probably help absorb noise, enclosed our two tables and two other (empty) ones, making for an intimate, small area in which we could have a nice, private conversation with the total strangers sitting inches from us.
I became interested in Greenwood when Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post recommended it as a place for folks who missed Rupperts. He cautioned, though, that Rupperts was one of a kind. After our visit to Greenwood, I have to agree. Rupperts was one of a kind. Here are some thoughts about both restaurants:
Like Rupperts, the kitchen at Greenwood seems committed to freshness, changing with the seasons, and innovation, but it just doesnt pull it off as deliciously in its dishes. Then there is the attitude. At Rupperts there was a sense of warmth and, though it may sound strange, togetherness-you and the kitchen and the sommelier were on the same side, coming up with new things for you to like-even composing plates of various things on the menu for vegetarians or others with peculiar dietary preferences. At Greenwood there is a communal table, but it seemed like a stand-in for real togetherness-at least to us. Especially in light of the shrimp debacle. And there was an attention to detail at Rupperts that we missed at Greenwood. Though served with excellent olive oil, the bread at Greenwood was cool and boring. It only served to remind us of the salt bread with farmers cheese, or the hot-off-the-grill walnut bread with cranberry spread we used to get at Rupperts. Oh well.
My visit to the restaurant took place a few weeks ago, prior to the publication of the Posts Fall Dining Guide. Since I have only been once, this review should not be taken as definitive. I know it is much easier to be critical than it is to run a restaurant. Personally, I want more good restaurants to succeed, not merely for themselves, but when there are better restaurants in diverse geographic areas of DC (Greenwood is up on Connecticut by Nebraska Ave.), that makes for a more interesting city. Overall, though, unless I hear some good reasons otherwise, I dont think I will be returning to Greenwood anytime soon. There are too many other places on my to-try list.