Monday, February 23, 2015

Washington Social Diary

Sally Quinn
The Capella Manhattan.
by Carol Joynt

Hey, kids, what’s the antidote to a weekend of freeze and slush and snow and ice and wintry mix and fog and the pervasive bleakness of the last laps of winter? I say, if you can’t get to Florida for spring training, or to a Caribbean cove, or even a sunny slope, go to lunch. 
The weekend's freeze and snow drew ice hockey players to the C&O Canal.
I’ve always enjoyed Saturday lunch. Not brunch. Lunch. In the modern working world a good, relaxing lunch – meaning with wine – is hard to come by. Saturday rolls around, and it’s possible, and it’s rarely more pleasant than in the weeks of late February and early March, when we need a little boost to get us cheerfully to the spring thaw.

Here are two recent and notable Saturday lunches. One is a field trip to a place not old but certainly established, Bryan Voltaggio’s Volt in Frederick, Maryland, and the other is to the dining room of the still relatively new Capella Hotel in Georgetown, which just handed its kitchen over to a popular long-time DC chef, Frank Ruta. What both restaurants have, beyond star chefs and good food, is daylight streaming in the windows. Volt overlooks the main drag of Frederick, which is charming, and the Capella overlooks the C&O Canal, which is serene.
Volt, in a period house on the Frederick's main street.
The entrance and the menu.
Volt is an altogether excellent Saturday lunch destination. The setting has history, especially connected to the Civil War, the neighborhood is quite walkable, which is good for building up an appetite. There are a mix of interesting, quirky and fine stores, and there’s a love of food in the community. A veteran of the “Top Chef” franchise on Bravo, Voltaggio is the first chef to compete on both the original “Top Chef” — Season 6 — and “Top Chef Masters.” He’s a native of Frederick but did his time in the New York restaurant scene with Charlie Palmer at Aureole, before returning to his hometown and opening Volt in 2008. He now owns six restaurants altogether.
A band of chefs, DC "Top Chef" contestants Mike Isabella, Spike Mendelsohn, Bryan Voltaggio and Bart Vandaele.
His brother, Michael Voltaggio, not only is in the same business — he is the chef and owner of ink. on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles — but the two competed against each other on Top Chef right up to the finale, which Michael won.  But really, does that matter? Another day it would have been Bryan. He is so talented and we are fortunate we didn’t lose him to the West Coast, too.

Volt is in a period building but with an ultra contemporary interior.  On each of my visits we have been greeted graciously and seated promptly. No one wants to eat in an empty restaurant and Saturday lunch is usually bustling, but the service is smooth. There are the options of a three-course menu for $35 or five courses for $55. Wine pairings are offered at an additional charge. There’s a good cocktail menu.
The exterior of Volt is older, but the interior is new and contemporary.
The main dining room. Window tables are flooded with light. 
The kitchen dining room, including a dining counter.
Champagne greeting, and the view from our table. 
While they call it “brunch” the Volt menu allows the diner to go either way — the traditional route of eggs and French toast and doughnuts — or non-brunchy choices such as chicken of the woods mushrooms, mustard green soup, beets with yellowfin tuna, roasted chicken, lamb, and fish. In other words, everyone at the table is happy. I particularly like the omelet, though on my most recent visit I ordered the chicken. Dessert was an incredible coconut creation (think snowball) studded with Asian pear.
Wonderful biscuits, buns and butter.
Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms with red tosaka, sea beans and pickled ramps.
Spelt Radiatore guanciale, fiore di sardo, Whitmore farm eggs (btw, the very best eggs in the mid-Atlantic).
Chicken with sprouted guinoa, hen of the woods mushrooms, cippollini onion.
Omelet with caramelized onion, parmigiano reggiano, lobster, whole grain mustard.
Lamb with steel cut oatmeal, black trumpet mushrooms, swiss chard.
A rasher of fine applewood smoked bacon.
The desserts come in all kinds of different presentations and run the gamut from chocolate to vanilla and goodies in between. 
Coconut with jasmine, Asian pear and finger lime.
Fresh saffron cheese with golden raisins, cauliflower and sourdough, and, yes, a dessert. 
The drive from Washington is about an hour, and if you take back roads there are the occasional farmers markets and pretty scenery. We made a stop at Dublin Roasters Coffee to pick up some fresh beans and bumped into a manager from Volt, picking up Volt’s special blend.

If Frank Ruta were ever to try to leave Washington, the foodie citizenry would likely block the bridges and highways to make sure he didn’t get away. He’s that popular with his loyal fan base, bordering on a cult. For 14 years he was the chef and owner of Palena in Cleveland Park. It closed last spring and, after a detour at the haute Bread Furst bakery, Ruta was recruited by Capella and the deal was sealed by the end of the year. He made his debut at a party a week or so ago and his new menu was introduced only last Wednesday.
The Capella Hotel, in Georgetown overlooking the C&O Canal.
The dining room at Saturday lunch.
This move in the direction of a boldface chef is a big and important step for the Capella, which had an awkward start with its restaurant program. The menu was ambitious but lacked a firm hand, service was uneven, and the wine list was lazy. They hired a new hotel general manager, Marco Bustamante, a restaurant man himself, who was keenly aware of these problems and set about to fix them. Thus he brought in Frank, and the addition of a sommelier, Keith, who won me over with his suggestion of an Oregon pinot noir from Penner-Ash. I wonder if he knew that the winemaker, Lynn Penner-Ash, once worked for the Smithsonian? And it was just right.
Lunch service bread and butter (not to be confused with the dinner bread basket).
Capella is an appealing Saturday lunch getaway and Ruta’s cooking quickly defeated winter’s chill with a bowl of Kabocha squash and Shitake mushroom soup — not too creamy, just spicy enough — and a “parfait” of chicken livers with toast, followed by crispy, golden roasted chicken au jus.  Ruta’s preparations were so appealing I returned for a dinner (and, coincidentally, spotted The Washington Post’s restaurant critic, Tom Sietsema doing the same) of oysters on the half shell, Suckling Pig Trio (stuffed breast, braised shoulder and roasted loin), and a “Sicilian Holiday” for dessert, meaning an ice cream-confit-cake ode to the great pistachio. The dinner bread basket is stellar, especially the little golden brown buttery biscuits.
Kabocha Squash soup.
Chicken livers "parfait."
Golden roasted chicken, in its juices, with some greens.
The Georgetowner, like Georgetown, is elegant in appearance and complex in flavor with dark chocolate, milk chocolate, caramel, marshmallow and buttered popcorn ice cream.
Adjacent to the dining room is the Rye Bar, where the star is Angel Cervantes, a Georgetown favorite since he worked at the late great Citronelle. Alas, there are only a few seats at the bar, but it’s worth nabbing one of them to have a chat with Angel. He’ll make you the cocktail of your choice, or something new from his cocktail menu, and the buzz is all about the barrel-aged Manhattan. Spoiler alert: It costs $22.

Since the Capella is just the down the hill from my house, and beautifully kitted out, and right there on the C&O Canal, I’ve always wanted it to do well and thrive. It is a Georgetown plus and has the potential to become a Georgetown gem. Ruta could be key, and we’re hoping so.
Rye Bar star Angel Cervantes.
Dining at the Capella at night.  The Capella's bar, where seating is limited, but its cozy, and when the weather is nice French doors open to the C&O Canal.
Before dinner ... or anytime, oysters on the half shell. These are from Maryland.
On the new Capella dinner menu: red wine braised beef cheeks and venison loin.
Though, apparently I must have the hamburger! Every time I’ve talked to anyone about Ruta — friends, fellow restaurant people, and colleagues — they swoon for his hamburger.

The Frank Ruta hamburger is locally and nationally famous.
“Have you had his hamburger?” they ask, almost breathlessly. The same from the staff at the hotel. “He’s famous for his hamburger.”

Or, “he’s very particular about his hamburger, every detail, he even makes the bun.” The Washington Post’s dining writer Fritz Hahn this week published an item about the Ruta Burger because of rumors it would be on the menu at Capella.

“Could it be?” he asked, as if breaking news, adding that the burger was nationally acclaimed for its “carefully crafted simplicity.”

I’m intrigued, and as soon as it’s on the menu, reportedly this week, I’m back there.

Because I worked in network news for much of my career friends ask what I think of the Brian Williams scandal, and how it could have happened. The better question is why, and the answer puts blame as much with the industry, and the culture of fame, as it does with Williams. It’s the inevitable derailing of a direction in the news business, especially broadcast news, that began with Watergate and the incredible fame that hit Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and begat more fame for countless other previously anonymous journalists, especially in regard to television.

Before them there was some Washington journalism fame, but nothing on a scale of the post-Watergate era. It quickly went from cluelessly innocent to quietly corrosive. If you saw “Broadcast News,” and remember the anchor “Tom Grunick” played by William Hurt, you get my drift.
One and the same? Anchors Brian Williams and Tom Grunick (as played by William Hurt?).
I was a producer at CBS News in Washington at the same time director James L. Brooks and his team were in town making that movie. They were very present at our bureau on M Street, and in our lives. Though the script was written, Jim continued to work on details. I remember one particular lunch with him at the Hay Adams where he asked me a series of questions about techniques used in shooting a field interview and alternative options to certain “cutaway” shots. It’s a point that’s critical to the film’s plot, and to Grunick’s veracity.

I also recall parties with the cast, and some of us joking with William Hurt that with his “looks” he could score an anchor job in a heartbeat. And then there was Albert Brooks, my idea of a heartthrob, who played the hard core, by-the-books reporter who lacked the star power and charisma to make it in the anchor chair. Just characters, right? Maybe not.
Albert Brooks (as the fast-talking Aaron) comes very close to stealing "Broadcast News."
The funny thing is back then, mid-'80s, coming off the Walter Cronkite era at CBS and with the Tom Brokaw era in full flower at NBC, we laughed off the film’s premise — that just being likable and charismatic and attractive was enough to get the big job, and so what if you skirted the truth a little bit here and there; it was all in the service of getting a point across; about the story, but also about the anchor’s empathy and sincerity. “This couldn’t happen,” we’d say to each other.
Tom Brokaw — the last of NBC's truly trusted?
Walter Cronkite.
Jim Brooks, a network news veteran himself, saw more clearly what was happening and got out in front the way Paddy Chayevsky did with his script for “Network,” the decade earlier and equally prescient movie about TV. Watch these two together and then examine the Brian Williams saga. Oh, and maybe also check out the last decade of reporting on the White House Correspondents Association dinner. (My friend Patrick Gavin is directing a documentary film about this event, which has the potential to be revealing.)
The White House Correspondents Association Dinner mixes all the modern celebrities together — political, entertainment and news.
What happened in the aftermath of “Woodstein,” sometimes with subtlety, sometimes not, is how suddenly having a byline was a gateway to celebrity, to having an agent, book contracts, possibly a network retainer. Being on TV, local or national, meant you might get tapped to play a TV reporter in a movie. It became about the fame. The line got very fuzzy between news and show business. It became not unheard of for interviewees to want the autograph — or a selfie with — the interviewer.  In addition to the money and attention, the more famous reporter was endowed with skills and talent that didn’t land on unknowns.
They were called "Woodstein," Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at the time of Watergate, and the first really big modern era news stars.
If you weren’t on TV, you didn’t count. Young people who once just wanted to be a reporter, dogging a story, now wanted to be the TV anchor. And why not? There’s millions to be made, the perception of magic powers and infinite wisdom, and wherever you go there’s an entourage of executives and other staff whose every waking moment is devoted to your care, feeding and most insignificant whims.

The modern era anchor exists in a bubble of unchecked adoration. Until they mess up, and all the toys are taken away, except for a payout on a pointless contract.

Brian Williams wanted to live up to the image of being Brian Williams, and why wouldn’t he? If he didn’t achieve and maintain those heights he risked becoming ordinary, a ratings drop, and losing his job.

By inflating the facts, which is what he apparently did, he fulfilled that image. Fame fanned him with approval.  It’s easy to get lost in the adoration of fame, especially if you don’t necessarily have a strong sense of self-worth, and the risks are the same regardless of whether the famous person is the star of a half hour sitcom or a half hour news broadcast. 

Brian Williams got lost and his industry, in disruption itself, can’t help him.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt