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Review of 1789 Restaurant

PHOTO: Branzino at 1789 Restaurant (c) Sery Kim

Despite the theoretical advances D.C. might have made through the opening of 200 restaurants in the last three years, the bandwidth of acceptably interesting D.C. restaurants has remained inordinately narrow and small. Tragically, dominance in D.C.’s food industry has gravitated towards a clustering of new restaurants fighting for breathing space on D.C.’s 14th Street while formerly heralded bastions of D.C.’s “Old Guard” (Capital Grille, Caucus Room, The Inn at Little Washington) have become relics like dinosaurs.

Into this tenuously odd dynamic between old and new, Executive Chef Samuel Kim has steered the revered “Old Guard” D.C. eatery 1789 Restaurant in Georgetown from a fading fossil’s glory to a consistent gem. His even, almost careful, infusion of gastronomic elements gives a whimsical edge to the food while still respecting the near mandatory traditions of 1789 Restaurant’s storied past as a meat-and-potatoes kind of establishment.

Chose to refresh the palate with the Chardonnay, Cuvaison, Carneros, Napa Valley, CA 2012. This Cuvaison Chardonnay has a soothing medley of subtle flavors, with a mostly neutral fruit edge, reminding one of a fresh spring breeze before coursing to the elegant Chilled Corn Chowder ($13). Toasted pine nuts give this languid -- but not limp -- soup a crunchy relief while Chef Kim’s light flavoring prevents the typically fatty elements of the chowder from being overpowering.

The next course of Foie Gras Tourchon ($26) was the only course I left unfinished. Though undeniably a visually spectacular dish, after having a near perfect cord chowder, the expectations for the foie gras was to have the same medley of tastes. Unfortunately, the combination of peach compote, spice creme fraiche, pickled celery, lavender and hazelnut butter skewed too much towards a sharp saltiness. Perhaps another half-teaspoon of a sugar element -- perhaps a sweet creme fraiche instead of a spice creme fraiche or a sweet celery instead of a pickled one -- would have leavened the saltiness of the dish.

PHOTO: Foie Gras Tourchon at 1789 Restaurant (c) Sery Kim

Although soup may not be for everyone, no one should leave 1789 Restaurant without sampling the pasta (second) course. Try the vibrant Squid Ink Tagliarini ($18). Winding tagliarini twists the sassy jumbo lump crab -- with its jalapenos and Thai basil -- into a joyful expression of taste evidencing Chef Kim’s talent of taking something familiar like pasta and infusing it with elements JUST interesting enough (in this case jalapeno and Thai basil) to bend the tastebuds.

Then finish the night with the lovely Branzino ($38). Seared to perfection, this silver skinned fish (also known in some quarters as “sea bass”) laid on a gentle bed of coconut red curry broth and yogurt foam. Since a fish by itself can be rather bland, Chef Kim created nuances with golden lentils, charred cucumbers, green papaya and pickled onions to balance the silky smoothness of the branzino with vegetables whose crunchiness fused a more playful element. Again, it should be noted, these type of unusual elements in a standard D.C. fish course is what sets Chef Kim apart from the rest of his peers.

Should there be any doubt as to what dish to order, diners are informed the most popular item on the menu is the Colorado Rack of Lamb ($46), a monstrous rising of meat with lamb bacon lardons, garlic puree, eggplant, cipollini onion and summer squash.

Regardless of what is ordered, other than the notable food, in the sometimes spotty service the hospitality industry consistently gets dinged for, 1789 Restaurant does not grapple with errors in service. Not only was the table we sat in perfectly served, with an even tempo to “checking in” vs. “helicoptering” (when servers come every minute to make sure “everything is fine”), but the sold-out backroom of 1789 Restaurant received the same level of care and attention.

Whatever hesitations there may be to come across to Georgetown to 1789 Restaurant, they should be left behind to enjoy this still relevant jewel. Chef Kim’s culinary talent deserves to be recognized and the graceful yet humble spirit of all who work there should be enjoyed by all.

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