Grilled strip loin with fava-bean mash, piperade, poached egg and bordelaise sauce
The W Hotel, a Starwood Hotels and Resorts property, has been a tricky sell in Washington since it opened in 2009. It’s a neon-pink brand in a navy-blue town. A lobby with purple lighting, zebra upholstery, silvery sequined pillows and the low thump of house music suits the fashionista crowd, but what about the buttoned-up lawyers, lobbyists and White House staffers just around the corner?
Its original restaurant, J & G Steakhouse, never found an identity. Attached to it was someone who was there in name only: celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. And it wasn’t really a steakhouse. If there’s one thing that can turn off Washingtonians, it’s the scent of a bait and switch.
And so Starwood is trying again. The new concept is called Pinea, referring to the pine nuts you’d find on the trees wafting in the breezes above the southern Mediterranean. Helming the kitchen is local chef Barry Koslow, a big talent who cut his chops at Citronelle, Circle Bistro, Mendocino Grille & Wine Bar and DGS Delicatessen, where he elevated pastrami to an art form. This time around, Koslow emphasizes the cooking of Spain, Italy and France.
Interestingly, though, the decor of the 82-seat restaurant doesn’t reflect that theme. That should be achieved easily, given the airiness of a room with 20-foot-high Palladian mirrored panels and windows that offer spectacular Washington views. But the room, with dark parquet flooring and tufted gray or brown banquettes, doesn’t feel bright—yet. The space is a work in progress, says Koslow. Rather than close for a long renovation, Starwood decided to roll out the new concept and make changes in stages. Classic square columns in Wedgewood blue will be covered with gold mirrors. Lipstick-red chairs will be out; birch tones in. A vast, blank white wall will feature a print reflecting Washington’s history.
Koslow’s menu is totally Mediterranean. Rather than bread, the meal starts with crispy, sesame-sprinkled lavosh and a bold black olive tapenade. A section of snacks (merenda) provides excellent options for cocktail accompaniments for the table. A trio of bruschetta features spreads of avocado and pistachio; chickpeas and grilled scallions; and dreamy, creamy sheep’s milk ricotta, which Koslow gets from Pennsylvania and smokes with applewood. Figs roasted with serrano ham come on a smear of zingy cabrales blue cheese. Crunchy crab and guanciale croquettes are as poppable as peanuts.
Some of Koslow’s dishes read as they might on other menus around town, but when they arrive, they’re so visually appealing and tasty that they come off as revelations. Tuna crudo turns out to be thin, 3-inch squares of pristine jewel-toned sushi-grade tuna graced with shaved cucumber slices, tiny cucumber balls, baby sorrel leaves, minuscule brunoise of preserved lemon and dots of salsa verde. It is divine, as is the octopus, cooked sous-vide until tender, then crisped in a saute pan and offered with fingerling potatoes, saffron threads, chorizo and sherry vinaigrette. A slice of chunky saucisson à l’ail, the hearty French garlic sausage, stands atop black lentils surrounded by a vivid orange soffritto. Koslow’s version of beef tartare, hand-cut cubes of beef tossed with anchovy-touched nicoise coulis, stands out enough to forgive the ubiquity of the dish around town.
Among the entrees, the most pedestrian sounding one turns out to be the star of the show: a chicken thigh seared and braised with tomatoes, saffron, mirepoix and batons of salsify. It’s paired with slices of velvety boudin made from chicken, duck and foie gras.
Whole roasted branzino comes in a decorative Staub casserole. It’s perfectly cooked and redolent of lemon and olives, and it’s reminiscent of other fine renditions in town. The flavorful grilled New York strip shines under a piperade sauce and a poached egg whose runny yolk mingles with fava bean and pistachio mash and bordelaise sauce to create sumptuous bites.
If there’s a special of veal agnolotti—packets of fresh pasta encasing veal ragu served with porcini mushroom and white truffle shavings—snap it up. You’ll also like al dente ziti rigati, made in-house and coated with a stew of braised rabbit, whole-grain mustard, tarragon, prunes and escarole.
For dessert, creamy, custard-like coconut cremeux with passion fruit sorbet melds those island flavors with an elegance splendidly enhanced by a rich Champagne sabayon. Olive-oil cake is moist and nicely spiked with Pernod, but rosemary ice cream reminds me that savory ingredients in dessert don’t always work. Zeppoli (little doughnuts) with Meyer lemon curd and brandy-macerated cherries get me back on the happy train, though.
Pinea’s wine list, not surprisingly, leans toward French, Italian and Spanish offerings, and there are few under $50. Les Pallières Gigondas goes for $85; Chamisal Pinot Noir (Edna Valley) for $55. Servers are affable and attentive; though if you wear a purple gingham shirt, as I did, you might be mistaken for staff. Given the quality of Koslow’s food, I wouldn’t mind being pressed into service.
515 15th St. NW, Washington, DC
Appetizers, $11-$16; entrees, $19-$36; desserts, $9
Breakfast, Mon.-Fri., 6:30-10:30am; Sat. and Sun., 7:30-10:30am; lunch, Mon.-Sun., 11:30am-2:30pm; dinner, Sun.-Thu., 5:30-10pm; Fri. and Sat., 5:30-11pm
After dinner, zip up to the recently renovated POV rooftop lounge and take in one of the city’s best views, with the National Mall and the White House seemingly within hand’s reach. Sink into a cushy leather chair with a cocktail and chill to the beats of POV’s curated music nights, created by Svetlana Legetic. Thursdays are indie rock; Fridays are house; and Saturdays are turn of the century (21st, that is).
Touch of Class
Nice touches at Pinea include an after-dinner pour of pompelmocello, a chilled libation of grain alcohol, grapefruit and simple syrup. The cocktail list, created by General Manager Adrian Mishek, has European flair to match Koslow’s menu, from the Cocchi Cola to the Quixote (brandy, white vermouth, absinthe) and Hendrick’s negroni. Another perk: complimentary parking—just ask for validation.