Adam, the Teddies, Jonathan, and I had an impromptu dinner at Mike Isabella's cavernous new restaurant in the Marriott Marquis downtown on Monday night. (I too rarely blog about meals in DC, so I figured I'd snap some photos in anticipation of posting.) There are a number of restaurants around town that I call my happy places -- 2 Amys, The Dabney, TUG, Himitsu, etc. -- where the food is often fantastic and is at minimum quite enjoyable, and we can sidle up to the bar for a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. Arroz's vibe is about as opposite of that as you'll find without having something notably "wrong" with it. The space itself is as nice as could be expected given its size and location, with pops of pretty cobalt. Adam and I made the mistake of entering through the hotel; walking through that massive, sterile, vaguely chemical-smelling lobby is always a bit off-putting, and the feeling lingers in the mostly empty restaurant. Our server, while competent and very nice, had the sort of overly familiar, intrusive style that I'd bet -- pardon the gross stereotyping -- middle aged ladies and tourists will enjoy, but I can't stand. Think explaining "espuma" unprompted, asking whether we were "loving" every dish that was brought to the table (a formulation that doesn't admit the possibility of not
loving something, which rankled more at a hit-or-miss meal), and describing every dessert on the menu in such excruciating detail (before handing over menus or asking whether we were interested in dessert) that we immediately asked for the check to avoid more engagement. (Early in the meal and already annoyed, I realized we'd had him somewhere before. When we asked where he'd previously worked, he said he'd served us at Zaytinya in the past.) These complaints feel mean-spirited, and to his credit, he did all the technical serving well: cheerfully moving us to a booth when we asked, thoughtfully bringing extra flat bread so that everyone got his or her own piece, conscientiously accommodating requests for certain ingredients on the side in some dishes, etc. He just utterly failed to read his audience's interest in his spiels. But the net result is that I enjoyed the dinner less than I might have on the food's own merits.
So, the food and drink: overall, I was pleasantly surprised. The cocktails were all excellent. A particular table favorite was my order of the classic
from the sherry category, which a light, floral, not-too-boozy combination of manzanilla, dry vermouth, and yellow chartreuse. The roasted carrot in the sour
made the drink interesting without veering too sweet or savory. The abogado
was a very slightly peaty old fashioned. The cobbler
was a bit sweet for dinner, but would have done well on a hot summer day. The somm steered us to a lovely, slightly oxidated garnatxa blanca/xarel-lo/macabeu blend (mas d’en compte, 2012) that was a bit cheaper than the white rioja that we'd asked about as a starting point for the conversation.
|classic and sour|
A tiny carrot coated in spiced butter was a very tasty little amuse. (But rapturously calling it a gift from the chef was a bit much.)
The tuna crudo was light and very enjoyable, although I wished the tuna was a little firmer and the broth a little punchier. (Perhaps a hit more salt? This was something I wondered about in a number of dishes, which didn't taste particularly undersalted but just a bit shy of fully flavored.)
|big eye tuna crudo -- green apple, cucumber, smoked serrano broth, wild herbs|
A fantastic eggplant dip had a smokey depth of flavor punctuated with bright slices of pickled onion, chile, and eggplant. The accompanying flat bread delightfully evoked Komi's pancakesque pita (although not quite as good in texture, with a bit more of a bisquick-y note).
|burnt eggplant -- moroccan flat bread, za'atar, pine nut, black garlic|
A pretty vegetable salad was as you'd expect, although the garlic streusel (basically just a powder) added nice bite; I'd have happily taken a more generous dusting.
|spring vegetables -- carrot tahini, garlic streusel, charred baby beets, kalamansi vinaigrette|
Even without the chorizo (which we got on the side), I enjoyed the charred asparagus, which had a bit more kick than the muted tuna dish.
|smokey asparagus -- marinated chorizo, egg yolk, san simon, chile emulsion|
Fried prawns were well seasoned and crispy, with the heads separated into a little dish of aioli, which had the complementary effects of flagging for the inexperienced diner that they were to be eaten but allowing the heads to be ignored by the squeamish. (I'm actually not sure whether the body shells were intended to be eaten. They were slit for easy peeling, but crispy enough to just eat whole. Our table ran the gamut on how we dealt with them. Adam peeled his. I ate everything but the tail. Jeffy left nothing behind.) But at over $8/prawn, this dish wasn't exactly a great value. (If you want whole fried shrimp, head to Himitsu for their superior and cheaper iteration.)
|spanish red prawns -- seaweed salt & lemon|
The most disappointing dish was the fideos. The noodles were mushy-soft (which was particularly disappointing as I was expecting, perhaps unfairly, a slightly crisped noodle dish like the rossejat at Jaleo or the fideos at Casa Mono). They were overwhelmed by a tasty but one-note creamy tomato sauce; urchin or other briny seafood flavors were muted. (I again didn't eat the sausage, but the meat eaters seemed even less impressed by this dish than I was. One technical service fail: after we ordered the sausage on the side, our server didn't think to mention that the dish came with duck fat breadcrumbs, although they did come segregated on a razor clam shell.)
|saffron fideo noodles -- cockles, razor clams, linguica sausage, sea urchin espuma|
The seafood in the soupy rice was very well cooked, the lobster itself nicely tender, which can be a feat in these sorts of seafood variety stews -- but the tomato broth itself was disappointingly flat. The seaweed "montadillo" was a surprisingly light and delicious slice of dark bread adorned with lemony aioli, lobster, and urchin (enough pieces for us each to have one, which may have been another good service touch by our waiter). But our waiter's suggestion to combine it with the soupy rice to make a sort of "lobster roll" just resulted in burying the best part of the dish with the lackluster flavor of the escabeche. (At $62, this dish made me wish we'd ordered a more servings of the eggplant and pocketed the savings.)
|lobster soupy rice -- mussels, sea urchin, black bass, tomato escabeche, seaweed montadillo|
Better of the large plates was the crab bomba, which we ordered in a half-portion for $31 or $32 (the full order is $60, so a reasonable option). The slightly crisped-on-the-bottom rice was very satisfying with the more acidic tomatoes (as compared to the other tomato dishes) and fatty aioli, but the soft shells were muted by too much batter. (I don't think it's a coincidence that Adam, who didn't have any soft shell, liked this dish better than I did.)
|maryland crab bomba - fried soft shells, baby squid, preserved tomato, crab fat aioli|
We skipped dessert, but Arroz does end with an adequate shortbread bite. (I don't love shortbread in general, and this is no P&P shortbread.)
At these prices, and with this atmosphere, I'm not rushing back. Our meal was comparable in price to much better experiences at places like TUG, Little Serow, and Himitsu, and significantly more expensive than favorites like 2 Amys or Etto. But if someone else wanted to go, I wouldn't mind (although I would avoid the large plates in favor of the small). I'm guessing the size of the restaurant will make getting reservations relatively easy, and therefore Arroz would be a good option for large parties, especially of out-of-town family members who might get a thrill out of proximity to a Top Chef alum. (Isabella was in the restaurant, although his casual attire -- sporting a t-shirt with his name on it -- suggested perhaps not in the kitchen. We saw him chatting with Jeremiah Langhorne and his companions at a nearby table.)