Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Restaurant Week Wars

For you non-DCers mid-January is a time of great rejoicing and feasting. No, it's not King Day, it's Restaurant Week. Restaurants of all cusines and price levels offer 3-course dinners for the price of $35.10 (the cents go up a penny each year insuring that inflation erodes any profitability) excluding drinks, tax, tips, parking and coat check. So while the prices sound cheap, it's real easy to be north of Benjamin in a hurry.

The trick then is to pick a restaurant that offers the best value and that is harder than it looks. The dirty secret is that the more high end places create special low-end dishes that are cut-rate versions of their signature meals. And at the budget ended participants, thirty-five bucks goes pretty far and you might as well just order ala carte because there just isn't any bargain to the meal.

This year we tried an experiment and went to two different steak places and compared the selections.

The Caucus Room

Finn and Porter

In the basement of an office building on 9th and D with a view of the brutalist FBI building across the street, this tries for a clubby simulation of a place politicians would hang out and smoke cigars in. A series of small dining rooms lets them cater to groups very easily. It is going for refined high class and missing the mark by just a smidgen.
The 'hotel restaurant' of the Embassy Suites on 10th and New York, the place is large and airy and open. Just last week on a business trip I ate at a Finn and Porter in a Hilton, so I suspect the chain is a Hilton knock-off of the Ruth's Chris/Mortons mold.
Five dollar self-park in the office building garage with validation.
Five dollar valet at the hotel with validation.
Not too busy. Plenty of empty tables between 7:30 and nine.
Average. The place filled up and there were several large tables full of business travelers.
Menu choices
Each restaurant had a beef, poultry of seafood dish available. We had the beef and poultry and passed on the seafood.
Doing an end run around the value menu concept, in addition to the $35 price point, they also had $42 and $55 menus each with more choices and more elaborate dishes.
Finn and Porter stayed to the concept, but still had very limited choices.
As part or RW, they offered either a house white or a house red for nine bucks. I had the chardonnay and it was very good. My wife sprang an extra buck for a pinot grigot off the regular menu and it was even better.
The RW menu included a special wine menu with over a half dozen bottles price between 25 and 40 bucks each. And while they were tempting, we instead went for the $14 specialty cocktails off the regular menu. My wife had a lemoncello vodka drink that took her cares away. She followed up with a glass of white wine that was not up to the quality of the Caucus Room. My pomo cosmo was okay but not up to my girlie drink standards.
First Course
At $35, you only get a salad. When I asked my waiter why mine was missing the cheese, he pointed out on the menu that mozzarella only comes on the higher priced lists.
A choice of a salad or a soup. The soup was a clam chowder and quite flavorful. The salad hit all my hot buttons: mixed greens, nuts, dried cranberries, and gorgonzola. A bigger portion would have been a meal.
Beef dish
Steak with pomme frites came in a generous 8 ounce size but just a little tough and overcooked. The fries were perhaps a little too delicate and tough to eat gracefully.
A really nice sized sirloin just a shade under medium rare and still very juicy. Delicious taste. A really good steak. The side was an indistinguishable mess of grilled potatoes and vegetables.
A roasted half chicken with a delicious crispy skin. The dark meat was just a little bloody and the white meat was tough to pick off the bones. The wild rice was drier than I liked, but the cranberry sauce made the dish. Very tart and sweet, I want this on table next Thanksgiving.
A plump chicken breast that was very juicy and meaty.
Both places offered only a single dessert.
A delicious mango sorbet that served as a small but tasty
Red velvet cake with a decent cream cheese frosting.
Here is where all RW places fail.
Just a little too droopy and slow.
Friendly but divided between too many tables.
Overall Value
Poor. You were clearly shown that you were getting the budget food and should have sprung for a pricier menu.
Good. Decent portions with presentation and quality level not much different from the regular menu

Saturday we go the opposite direction and try a casual trendy food place in Montgomery County.


Anonymous said...

yello - i think you guys should really make the trek and come down to the VA side- Ray's the steaks in Rosslyn is truely excellent!!


yellojkt said...

I went to Hell Burger for Fathers Day one year and I've been to Rays The Classics in Silver Springs several times. They are great steaks. I don't think they participate in Restaurant Week though.

Claude said...

My first experience with Ruth's Chris was during Baltimore's RW a few years ago. They were perfectly gracious and treated us no differently. In fact, I wound up getting a free glass of wine that night because the waiter and I got to talking a little bit about the wines on the list. I ordered one from the menu and he came back with two, inviting me to taste the other. We chitchatted about them a bit and he left the second glass behind. So he got what I presume would be a better-than-usual-for-RW tip.