Saturday, February 04, 2006

14 West: Hit and Miss

I know people think I'm stuck on one or two good restaurants in town, but there's a reason. In my book, excellence from a chef is consistency. Each of their dishes should be delicious every time. Their preparations should be spot on, and you should trust that anything you try on the menu is going to be well thought out. If I had one overall impression of Tony Hanslits' cooking at Malibu on Maryland and the new 14 West, it's been "hit or miss". Some dishes were innovative and amazing, some weren't. Some where well prepared every time and some just failed in kitchen technique. (Sticky pasta? Why?) By the way, the service? A total hit. Very nice. (I find that I always fail to comment on service if it was good because you didn't notice it. Which is the way service should be.)

Jason over at Foursquare No. 266 recently posted a review of 14 West and I was a step closer on agreeing to pop in for dinner. We did on Friday. The new owners originally reported they'd redesign the restaurant to attract women, counteracting the downtown steakhouse culture. They seem to have backed away from their original concept, or at least, I haven't heard it brought up since they opened. It's also not clear to me why they haven't played this up as a chef-driven restaurant when they have one of the best-known chefs in town helming the kitchen. I didn't have high expectations and they weren't exceeded. The food menu for dinner was interesting in a few places, but not overly innovative. Dishes were good, but not stellar, and still hit or miss based on our table last night. However, it's still much better than the vast majority of what's out there in town. Downtown can certainly always benefit from another upscale restaurant.

The redesign looks good -- less edgy and steely than the old Malibu, this new look is a little warmer with texture. The downstairs looks largely the same with new drapes. The upstairs is now filled in (it used to overlook the downstairs dining room making for noisy dinners upstairs), and broken into small dining rooms with large booths and weird plasma screens with art on the walls. Even their wine storage is on display in an upstairs temp controlled room, which is kind of funny considering how uninspired their wine list is. (I didn't study too closely, but at first glance I didn't see anything to distinguish it from more of the same old distributor-pushed wine.)

For food? I had a mediocre glass of white Burgundy (their wine by-the-glass list was pretty grim). As Jason notes, the pretzel bread is innovative and good -- although our mustard was almost too hot to eat. The herbed butter was flavorful and nice. For dinner, I had the veal sweetbreads to start. Wow! A total hit! A very flavorful with a rich cream sherry sauce cutting through the richness of the meat, but not too rich to eat the entire portion. Fantastic! But then I followed it with one of the worst salads I've ever had, so what do I know. Cobb salad? A total miss. I can't even explain why -- the greens were wrong, the dressing was too bland, and there was too much of everything loaded on the plate. The dressing should be strong enough to cut through and cover all that egg and blue cheese. Even the bacon wasn't that great (and that's saying something coming from me.) We also tried the Lobster Brie Mac and Cheese (largely a hit) and the seafood pasta (a miss, the pasta was clumpy.) Plus another salad and pasta dish (mostly hits) and the shrimp bisque (a miss.)

So, I'd say, enjoy the room and be careful with the menu. You need to know what to order (which is overall a bad thing in my book, if the chef can't do the dish well, take it off the menu), and realize you're stuck with only one or two OK choices overall if you're drinking wine by the glass. Maybe they'll work out some kinks and commit to just doing one thing really well -- like seafood, or innovative food. Hey, the sweetbreads were a great start!

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