- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2007

You could go to DC Coast just to people-watch.

The nine-year-old seafood restaurant in the heart of downtown is classy — white tablecloths, high ceilings and tasteful decor (including a large mermaid statue that greets guests at the door) — and known as a favorite hangout for politicians and lobbyists as well as media and Hollywood types.

Just in the past year, guests included Kiefer Sutherland, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Katie Couric, Lance Armstrong, George Stephanopoulos, Karen Hughes, Susan Molinari and Madeleine Albright.

Then there’s Newt Gingrich. He has a standing reservation and prefers the upstairs dining room in the 180-seat restaurant.

“I would say he comes in with his charming wife about three times a week,” says Gus DiMillo, co-owner of DC Coast. “He has an upstairs window table.”

Mr. DiMillo estimates that at least 50 percent of guests are regulars with standing reservations, which means that getting a table can be tricky unless you’re flexible.

“If you’re willing to eat at say 8 or 8:30 [p.m.] instead of 7 [p.m.] we can usually get you a table,” Mr. DiMillo says.

In general, though, it’s wise to make a reservation about one to two weeks ahead of time, particularly during the busy season (read: Congress is in session).

All that planning just to spot a celebrity or two? No, not at all. DC Coast would (or should) be a draw — celebrities or no celebrities. It has so much to offer. Beyond the elegant decor, the generously spaced tables (crammed downtown restaurants often make you virtually sit in the lap of the next-table guests), the amazing service and the well-prepared food are among more worthwhile attributes.

Waiters are dressed neatly in white shirts and black vests. Their demeanor fits their attire. They’re cordial and quick, but neither too chatty nor too familiar. They know the dishes well and can make qualified recommendations beyond “get it because it’s good.”

The food? Only the highest quality ingredients and perfect preparation need apply.

For starters, we went with the cast-iron crock steamed Blue Hill mussels, which was just divine. The mussels were buttery in flavor and texture and there was not a trace of unwelcome grit. The broth — limoncello thyme cream — was so tasty it would have been good in a glass. Of course, we knew better, surrounded, as we were, by the capital’s fine folk. The dish was nicely balanced by oven-dried tomato bruschetta, which added a tad acidity and crispness to cap off the abundance of butter and cream.

We moved on to the lovely roasted kabocha squash soup. Creamy and mild-flavored, the soup was accompanied by small pumpkin-seed crusted goat-cheese balls, which added a perfect amount of pungency and crunch to what otherwise could have been bland in flavor and texture.

The DC Coast salad — applewood-smoked bacon, egg white, egg yolk, blue cheese, tomatoes, radish and Lorenzo dressing (a vinaigrette sprinkled with chili sauce and watercress) — was generous and fresh, but flavorwise nothing new or exciting.

Which could be said for the food in general. The quality is outstanding the preparation solid, but innovation is seldom part of the recipe. At TenPenh, DC Coast’s sister restaurant, guests are likely to have “aha experiences,” tasting blow-you-away flavor and texture combinations that are edgy, new and yet delicious.

At DC Coast, guests more than likely will enjoy and be content with what meets the palate. But they probably will not be surprised — pleasantly or otherwise.

Maybe this has to do with the clientele. Maybe lobbyists and politicians are not the kind of crew whose boat you want to rock. Mr. DiMillo says some of the items on the menu have been there for years. They’re best-sellers (and include the Chinese-style smoked lobster and the grilled double-cut pork chop) and if they were removed Mr. DiMillo expects there would be — fittingly — a coup d’etat.

So, as we ordered our main course we got exactly what we expected: Great quality, excellent preparation and presentation, but not much imagination. The roasted free-range chicken with squash ragout, baby arugula and pomegranate-walnut sauce was expertly prepared. The chicken was unbelievably succulent and the seasoning perfect.

The DC Coast burger with smoked cheddar cheese, lettuce, cured tomatoes, steak sauce and crispy fries proved an excellent example of the restaurant’s attention to quality even when it comes to fringe ingredients. The brioche bun was delicious and the veggies as fresh as can be. The burger was prepared perfectly as ordered but could have used a little more seasoning.

The special of the day — mahi-mahi with polenta and sauteed veggies (including excellent asparagus) — was another perfectly prepared dish that was as pleasing to the eye as to the palate.

It should also be mentioned that the restaurant has an outstanding wine list and full — attractive — bar, which also offers a limited menu.

The dessert menu includes a nice range of delectable treats. We chose the warm New Orleans-style beignets served with cafe au lait brulee, which was just divine and the crispy chocolate hazelnut bombe with warm Burgundy-poached pears and orange-anise caramel, which proved an outstanding fusion of flavors: rich, chocolaty, fruity, slightly acidic but never too sweet. The homemade ice-cream, too, was delightful.

So, you see, people-watching is a negligible part of going to DC Coast. Its real treasures are its excellent and consistent service and food. DC Coast serves a clientele (like two-term congressmen and deal-closing lobbyists) who treasure predictability in an otherwise uncertain world. Come to think of it, who doesn’t when predictability refers to excellence?

RESTAURANT: DC Coast, 1401 K St. NW; 202/216-5988

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: First course $7 to $13 (lunch), $7 to $45 (dinner); main course $13 to $18 (lunch), $19 to $28 (dinner); desserts $8.

CREDIT CARDS: Major cards

PARKING: Limited street parking; valet parking, $6

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Metro Center on the Orange, Blue or Red line.

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