The dessert list at The Establishment has grown some since the meticulously stylized restaurant in May opened on Broad Street. At last check, its menu featured one example of every item in what’s emerged as the restaurant sweets canon, now that pastry chefs are passé (or, more accurately, too costly for restaurants monitoring low margins to consider).
Sous chef Zach Tyndall has created a lemon tart, chocolate mousse, dampish cake with fluctuating fruits and a soda fountain’s array of gelatos and ice creams, including a peanut butter chocolate chip that giddily reaffirms the rightness of the classic flavor combination. The Establishment also serves a selection of after-dinner drinks – our server suggested a glass of Calvados with the ice cream – and keeps an espresso machine running, so the final course certainly qualifies as comprehensive.
But it’s a far cry from overwhelming. Any patron who’s managed the restaurant basics up to this point in the meal should be able to choose without counsel. Still, a guest seated at a nearby table on my third visit was insistent that his server describe each dessert in detail. He earnestly savored every word until he couldn’t keep up the ruse.
“I already know what I want,” he admitted. “I just like to hear you talk about the food.”
Yelp reviews are nice, but it’s an even stronger endorsement of a restaurant’s service acumen when customers are clamoring for encores.
To be sure, The Establishment has put together a very professional front-of-house cast, led by general manager Brad Mogan, who last ran the floor at Rappahannock Oyster Bar. Andres Contreas, formerly Rue de Jean’s sommelier, is in charge of the 3,000-bottle wine collection. And servers without fancy titles are bound to look familiar from one place or another, especially to the well-heeled locals who’ve been filling The Establishment’s 168 seats.
Yet the fact that Atlanta-based Concentrics Restaurants had the foresight to scout proven talent for its 13th restaurant in no way undercuts the value of crew members’ performances. Guests here feel like they’re in very good hands. With service standards everywhere lately having taken a tumble into a deep, dark pit, let’s pause for a moment to appreciate that accomplishment.
(Heads bow, eyes close.)
Thank you. Now, perhaps during that interlude you reflected on servers who don’t whisk away a guest’s plate while his companions are still eating, or how nice it is when servers supply fresh utensils without being prompted. “What more could anyone want?” you might have asked of what counts as common practice at The Establishment.
You no doubt meant the question rhetorically, but I’m going to answer it anyhow: Better food. The Establishment does a terrific job of enacting a restaurant, meaning it’s nailed the look, feel and rhythms of a classy dining experience. When it comes down to correctly cooking a fish, though, things have a tendency to go awry.
I’m thinking here of the wreckfish, basted with olive oil and baked and baked and baked. A scattering of castelvetrano olives and bordering crescent of sweet peppers couldn’t carry the flavor load for the overdone fish or plain white rice beneath it. And I suppose I also have in mind the brown butter-crusted mahi, surrounded by a sea of salty field peas. Too much salt is a regrettable motif at The Establishment, with produce and proteins alike made to suffer.
Fish preparation problems are especially unfortunate because The Establishment bills itself as a seafood-centric restaurant. That means there’s steak and duck on the menu, but servers are apt to talk about chef Matt Canter’s close relationship with fishermen. But in a rare service slip, they’re not adequately trained to say much beyond that: When I asked a bartender about the origin of the halibut chop, she confessed she didn’t know exactly where it was caught, but assured me it was harvested within 90 miles of the restaurant.
That would rule out the Pacific Ocean, the likely source of the fish. Atlantic halibut, which rarely swim south of New Jersey, were named a "species of concern" in 2004. In other words, researchers don’t have enough information to declare the species endangered, but they’re attuned to serious threats facing it. If The Establishment is going to insist on trumpeting its “local, seasonal” catch, its staff members should know about those threats, too.
As for the chop itself, the meaty fish is among the better seafood dishes on The Establishment’s menu. It’s served with a heap of sunchokes and greens; whatever fat facilitated their stay in pan gives a greasy sheen to the whole assemblage, but the backbeat of garlic works.
Because of the chop’s heft and grill marks, it’s an attention-getter when served at the bar, which is where I ordered it. What makes that doubly impressive is the visual competition at the shiny horseshoe bar, thoughtfully outfitted with power outlets beneath its black countertop: An enormous mosaic of synchronized televisions occupies the back wall, allowing The Establishment to screen silent nature films in cinematic dimensions.
There are theatrical touches throughout The Establishment’s series of three rooms, which make tasteful use of brick, dark wood and leather. Wine is stored in a glass-walled cellar, and dramatic floral arrangements figure prominently in the front dining area. But the television sets are on another level of slick, especially on nights when there’s a piano player in the next room over. I was briefly mesmerized by footage of a jaguar stalking and devouring a crocodile while the unseen pianist pounded out “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”
Toward the back of the restaurant, there’s also a 10-seat counter wrapped around the open kitchen, for customers who find hard-working cooks more entertaining than winged geckos in flight. But once you’ve settled on seating, what should you order? Despite the missteps, there are a number of bright spots on The Establishment’s menu.
Rib eye deckle, sliced a mite thicker than is traditional for tataki style, is terrific. The rosy rare beef conspires with black vinegar and julienned watermelon radish to heist conversation: It’s impossible to try more than a slice or two without commenting on the powerful savoriness of the shitake-enhanced dish. Tomatoes and grilled peaches were rushed on to a plate too early in the season, but the salad anchored by fromage blanc ought to come into its own soon. In the meantime, a simple green salad with a wedge of compressed watermelon and florets of Romanesco is made way more special than it sounds by crispy leeks and ginger bits.
About halfway through the crab spaghetti, distinguished by al dente housemade noodles and picked peekytoe meat, you’re likely to feel thoroughly buttered up. But generous portioning doesn’t dilute the lemony loveliness of a dish that feels far more appropriate for the season than, say, the braised rabbit with slivered-and-stacked turnips gratin. That said, all of the entrée richness could theoretically be countered by a sparkling wine from a list that ought to speak to drinkers who are varietal-curious.
For dessert, ice cream seems like the reliable way to go. But you should really ask your server for a recommendation: I bet he or she would love to tell you about a favorite.