Despite the theoretical advances D.C. might have made with 200+ new restaurants in the past three years, attention has gravitated around a cluster of spots fighting for breathing space on D.C.'s 14th Street, while formerly heralded bastions of the region's "Old Guard" (Capital Grille, Caucus Room, The Inn at Little Washington) have become relics.
Into this uneasy balance between old and new, Executive Chef Samuel Kim has steered the revered "old guard" D.C. eatery 1789 Restaurant (1226 36th St. NW) in Georgetown from a fading fossil's glory to a consistent gem.
His even, almost careful, infusion of gastronomic elements gives a whimsical edge to the food while still respecting the near-mandatory traditions of 1789's storied past as a meat-and-potatoes kind of establishment.
We chose to refresh the palate with the Chardonnay, Cuvaison, Carneros, Napa Valley, CA 2012. This Cuvaison Chardonnay has a soothing medley of subtle flavors, with a mostly neutral fruit edge, reminding us of a fresh spring breeze before we moved on to the elegant chilled corn chowder ($13). Toasted pine nuts give the soup a crunchy relief while Kim's light flavoring prevents the typically fatty elements of the chowder from being overpowering.
The next course of foie gras tourchon ($26) was the only course I left unfinished. It was undeniably visually spectacular, but after having a near-perfect corm chowder, I was expecting the foie gras to have the same medley of tastes. Unfortunately, the combination of peach compote, spice crème fraîche, pickled celery, lavender and hazelnut butter skewed too much towards a sharp saltiness. Perhaps another half-teaspoon of a sugar element -- such as a sweet crème fraîche instead of a spice crème fraîche or a sweet celery instead of a pickled one -- would have reduced the saltiness of the dish.
Although foie gras may not be for everyone, no one should leave 1789 without sampling the pasta (second) course. Try the vibrant squid ink tagliarini ($18). Winding tagliarini twists the sassy jumbo lump crab -- with its jalapeños and Thai basil -- into a joyful expression of taste demonstrating Kim's talent for taking something familiar like pasta and infusing it with elements just interesting enough (in this case jalapeños and Thai basil) to bend the taste buds.
Then finish the night with the lovely Branzino ($38). Seared to perfection, this silver-skinned fish (also known in some quarters as sea bass) was laid on a gentle bed of coconut red curry broth and yogurt foam. Since a fish by itself can be rather bland, Kim created nuances with golden lentils, charred cucumbers, green papaya and pickled onions to balance the silkiness of the branzino with vegetables whose crunchiness added a more playful element. Again, it should be noted, these type of unusual elements in a standard fish course is what sets Kim apart from the rest of his peers.
Should there be any doubt as to what dish to order, diners are informed the most popular item on the menu is the Colorado Rack of Lamb ($46), a monstrous rising of meat with lamb bacon lardons, garlic puree, eggplant, cipollini onion and summer squash.
Regardless of what you order, 1789 does not grapple with errors in service. Not only was our table perfectly served, with an even tempo to "checking in" vs. "helicoptering," but the sold-out back room of 1789 Restaurant received the same level of care and attention.
Whatever hesitations there may be to come across to Georgetown to 1789 Restaurant, they should be left behind to enjoy this still-relevant jewel. Kim's culinary talent deserves to be recognized.