Like a lot of folks who love food, one aspiration is to eat a meal from a big-name chef — that is, to have great-dining experiences. (Other aspirations include finding the best crab cake, the ultimate onion ring, and the finest cheese cake.) Of course, who is, and is not, a great chef is a question debated by many. There are various rankings and polls. Those chefs who have developed a reputation, and maintained it over a number of years are held in the highest regard. That’s no guarantee, though, they, or their restaurant, will be great when you or I visit.
Fortunately, I have been able to dine at a few restaurants run by chefs considered by many to be great. (Unfortunately, none of them are located in southern Maryland, so we don’t list them in our Food & Drink Business Directory.) Some of my experiences were great, and others were disappointments. This article is about experiences dining at the restaurants of four well-known chefs, two of which were wonderful, and two not. In alphabetical order by surname, they are:
- Patrick O’Connell, The Inn at Little Washington, Washington, VA
- Georges Perrier, Le Bec Fin (closed), Philadelphia, PA
- Éric Ripert, Le Bernardin, New York, NY
- Eric Ziebold, Kinship & Métier, and CityZen (closed), Washington, DC
Several of these experiences go back a number of years, long before I ever envisioned writing this up. Therefore, some details, especially as to specific dishes, are lacking. But I’ll do the best I can from memory.
Big-name Chef Eric Ziebold
My wife Cindy and I dined twice at his CityZen restaurant in southwest Washington DC’s Mandarin Oriental hotel. Once for her birthday, and once for our wedding anniversary. After that restaurant closed, we visited his new restaurant in DC a couple years later. The now two restaurants are on 7th Street, NW, between L St. and New York Avenue. When we visited, Métier, located downstairs from Kinship, was not yet open.
At both CityZen and Kinship, the spaces were elegant, modern, and not overly decorated. The staffs were friendly and professional. The food during all three of our meals was outstanding. We were especially grateful that the Parker House Rolls had made the move from southwest DC to northwest. I love to make bread, and eat it, too, and the little box of rolls Ziebold’s kitchen delivers are wonderful.
For my wife’s birthday at CityZen, she got a birthday card and we both got a complimentary glass of bubbly. Ziebold worked in a very open kitchen there, and was easy to spot. He worked behind a counter topped by a low, glass wall, and kept an eye on the room, while working on dishes.
Kinship seemed a bit simpler in decor, but nonetheless quite pleasant. Also, the lights were brighter, so the space didn’t feel quite as intimate as CityZen. The menu at Kinship is different from what you typically find at other spots. It has groups of dishes (at this writing) such as Craft, History, Ingredients, For the Table (large courses for sharing), and Indulgence. Dip in here and there — we found you pretty much can’t go wrong. We found on each occasion that one or two dishes were truly extraordinary. Cindy had the chicken and waffle, it was a delightful pairing of perfectly fried chicken and light crisp waffle. It’s great to have a big-name chef that’s local.
Big-name Chef Éric Ripert
In late July a few years ago, we celebrated our wedding anniversary in Manhattan by adding a few days for ourselves onto one of my wife’s business trips. We went to an off-Broadway show (Avenue Q), and made it a point to get to some restaurants we’d not tried before. They were the Russian Samovar, Le Perigord (reportedly closed earlier this year due to a Union dispute, but hoping to open again), and Le Bernardin.
We had read about the restaurant, a famed French seafood spot, which is often ranked as one of the best in the country, and indeed, the world. Also, as fans of Anthony Bourdain’s television programs, we had seen Ripert chumming around with Bourdain in various parts of the world.
Anthony Bourdain (left) and Éric Ripert (right), in a Facebook post.
The night we were there, I have no idea if Ripert was in the house. There was no sign of an open kitchen to look for him, and he wasn’t seen on the floor, so we have no idea. Here are some general observations:
- at least 3 sommeliers were on duty
- there were so many staff that it was like watching Manhattan traffic, but without traffic lights — certainly the highest ratio of staff to customers I’ve ever seen
- ladies are offered little hammocks to keep their purses off the floor
- each table had seats that didn’t match one another, and some chairs were in rather odd shapes (looking at photos on the restaurant’s website today, they now appear to have matching chairs)
As for the eats, none of it was bad. But for the life of me, I can’t remember a single thing we had. And that was our biggest complaint: you’re paying dearly to sit in this room aswirl with staff, lots of customers, and an eclectic decor — and not one dish was awesome. If I’m going to a place like this, I hope to have at least a couple of dishes that are simply stunning. Is that too much to ask? Basically, we left feeling underwhelmed.
Big-name Chef Patrick O’Connell
With great anticipation, we went to The Inn at Little Washington to celebrate my 60th birthday. Our original reservation was for dinner and a stay at the Inn on my birthday in early August 2015. Unfortunately, our dog (Angus the Scottish Terrier) got sick, and we had to postpone.
We finally made it out to the Inn about six weeks later, in mid-September. This big-name chef, O’Connell, was not in residence, though, as he was on a trip to Cuba. We had reserved a room for the night in the Inn, which included afternoon tea, and breakfast the following morning. And, of course, dinner that evening in the restaurant.
We got there in the early afternoon, so we could check-in to our room in time for tea before dinner. We were given an upgrade to a suite, since they knew we were celebrating my birthday. It turned out to be a huge space, with a sitting room and bathroom on the first floor, and the bedroom above. From the bedroom upstairs, we could walk out along the roof to a deck with benches, to watch the street below and the sun dip behind the mountains.
Fortunately, the staff was able to take our luggage upstairs for us, as the suite was a third-floor walk-up. We’re pretty sure the staff, or at least the luggage, had access to an elevator, as we saw no sign of it being heave-hoed up the stairs. It’s possible, though, there may have been another stairway. Whatever the case, had we known the suite had such poor access (us being senior citizens), we probably would have requested a room on a lower floor.
The suite had more negatives (other than needing sherpas to reach it):
- There was a stain on the seat of one of the chairs in the sitting room.
- A slat on the wooden-venetian blinds in one of the bathroom windows was snapped off at one end.
- The room was pitch-black at night. The problem was negotiating the stairs down to the bathroom. They could put motion-sensor lights along the way or something, to help you keep from breaking your neck.
- There was a large stain on the rug in the hallway outside our door.
For tea, we were escorted to a room just off the lobby. It appeared some other guests had just finished and we sat down to wait for a server. And waited. There appeared to be some sort of business function going on in another part of the building, and staff walked through, to and fro, and continued to ignore us. Finally, after about ten minutes, I got up and went back to the lobby to ask someone there to see if we could get some service. Fortunately, that seemed to do the trick.
Tea and small dishes — sandwiches, cakes, pies, and chocolates — were brought to us. The tea was served in a lovely iron pot from China. I liked it so much, my wife bought one as a gift for me at the shop across the street. As we enjoyed the small repast, a staffer showed-up to restock the bar along one wall. It turned out we were in the room where after dinner drinks were served. There were some very fine spirits on display.
The room itself, though, must be seen to be believed. It is excessively decorated. Obviously it was put together by someone who didn’t care for Coco Chanel’s famous quote, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take at least one thing off.” Although Chanel was most likely referring to such things as rings, bracelets, and necklaces, the same advice works for decorating a room. If you’d like to see the room for yourself, do a search on “tea at the inn at little washington” and you’ll be able to find several pictures of that room on TripAdvisor.com. Below is one example:
This photo of The Inn at Little Washington
is courtesy of TripAdvisor.
We went down to dinner and a staffer took us to a table at the far end of the room. It looked like an area that was converted from a porch, so we seemed to be sort of outside. Fortunately, the decor in the dining area was a bit more subtle than in the bar/tea room. Unfortunately there were a couple of distracting hand-sized dark stains on the wall several feet above my wife’s right shoulder.
The Inn offers tasting menus in three flavors. Currently, each tasting is $218 per person, and a wine pairing costs $125 per person. At this writing, their online sample menus show:
- Our Enduring Classics — amuse bouche plus four of their classic dishes of meats and vegetables
- Here and Now — amuse bouche plus four seasonal meats and vegetables
- The Good Earth — amuse bouche plus four vegetarian courses
For our evening there, we each got a different tasting (not the vegetarian), so we could try as many dishes as possible. The courses came, slowly. The staff was friendly and professional, but the time between courses was very lengthy. None of the dishes was memorable, except one from after dinner (see below). We also got the wine pairings, which were all tasty, but none were remarkable.
For dessert, we got one of their signature dishes: a nice, light and refreshing group of seasonal sorbets (see the photo at right). We also asked for and received an item not listed on the menu or mentioned by the staff: popcorn with truffle shavings (you have to know about it, and request it). The popcorn was the best thing we had all evening. If I had a spare truffle sitting around the house, I’d certainly use it on popcorn.
Our best ever
Big-name chef Georges Perrier
We visited this place many years ago, so our memories are the haziest of the four chefs mentioned in this article. Le Bec Fin had a good run, from 1970 to 2013 — it’s name is colloquial for “good palate” — literally it means “thin beak” (or “the beak thin” if you use the French word order). It moved a couple of times during those years, but was always in Philadelphia.
Our whole experience there stands out in my mind, and Cindy’s, too. The entrance (see photo below) was like walking into a jewel box. No place we’ve visited since has ever been better. It set the highest standard — though we’d love to see someone beat it.Unfortunately, the Chef wasn’t there that day. We know that because we bought his cookbook: Georges Perrier Le Bec-fin Recipes. The staff said they were sorry he wasn’t available to autograph it.
The dining room was elegant and beautiful. The waiters (I don’t recall there being any female staff, other than the woman who greeted us at the door), were all in tuxedos. Service à la cloche, or service under a bell, was quite an experience. I’d seen it in movies, but it is a treat to enjoy in person. I found an interesting article about it, “Service Under a Bell: The Reason A Plate Is Served With A Cloche.” To see it in action, here’s a YouTube video:
Despite the tuxedos and luxurious setting, it wasn’t a stuffy place — the customers and staff all enjoyed themselves. Perrier’s signature dish was galette de crabe, or a crab cake. Search for it online and you’ll find a lot of recipes. Here’s a link to one from the Food Network.
The dessert cart was two tiers of goodness Le Bec Fin was famous for. We could pick whatever we wanted, of however many items we wanted. As I recall, there were a dozen or more options. There was also a cheese cart of similar size and variety. Oh my, I wished I’d known about that before I ate the rest of the meal. This place really made a great impression, and for us, Perrier is our favorite big-name chef.♦