Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Even with new chefs, the Tabard Inn’s history overshadows its food

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Those of us who have lived in Washington for a while consider the Tabard Inn one of our little secrets, not to mention the fact that it has been around since 1922 and on certain holidays everyone who writes lists mentions warmth and romance.

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Truly, the cat is out of the bag about the Victorian venue for decades, something I notice every time I head to the firelit living room for a drink in the fall or winter and find all the old couches occupied, or head out to the back patio garden in spring or summer and discovers that others have had the same idea. Good drinks, low ceilings and creaky floors are all constants on this leafy stretch from N Street NW to Dupont Circle.

From time to time I visit my old acquaintance to see how she is doing. The last few years have not been kind, meaning the lady would have needed some help in a tired kitchen. (My 2019 notes referenced oysters on the half shell doused in what tasted like a Bloody Mary – and crackling with bits of shell – and a soggy duck hash that should have been labeled a stew. ) That’s why Ian Boden, the chef-owner. behind the sublime Shack in Staunton, was hired as culinary partner, and Boden in turn recruited Matthew Zafrir, previously with the Japanese-Spanish Cranes of Penn Quarter, to serve as chef de cuisine. They released their first menu in August and I gave them a few months to get established.

I wish I could say I was more excited about the developments.

Caesar salads and oysters on the half shell are the kind of appetizers you’d expect to find at a lodging establishment. I love the twists hidden in chopped romaine, whose crunch comes from stringy fried potatoes and whose boldness comes from the miso in the dressing. As for the oysters, they are nicely shelled and benefit from a sparkling mignonette of pink pepper and sweetened with tiny apple “pearls” made from apple juice and agar, the binder from red algae.

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Entrees land near shimmering votives on linen-draped tables, in a boisterous main dining room defined by antique paintings and a black-and-white tiled floor. (Several dining rooms include a second-floor room, adorned with bird artwork, that overlooks the enclosed brick patio.) This winter, there’s sweet potato soup, warm with spices pastry and sorghum molasses. Small pan-fried gnocchi lightly flavored with goat cheese drift to the surface. It’s a combination I could imagine on the menu at Woodberry Kitchen (now Woodberry Tavern), the beloved homage to the Mid-Atlantic where Zafrir once worked as a line cook.

Introduced more than a century ago by South Carolina native Marie Willoughby Rogers, the Tabard Inn was inspired by British country manors and was billed as a tea room in its early days, says David Roubie, president of the Tabard company. Rogers named the property after the 14th-century inn featured in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”

The Tabard Inn not only has a long history, but a proud one. “The Man Without a Country” is believed to have been written here when its author, Edward Everett Hale, lived in the attic. The Navy used it as officers’ quarters for its female reserves during World War II, when hotels were meant to help the war effort. Mrs. Rogers remained owner until her death in 1970, after which the inn was threatened with demolition, then purchased in 1975 by Fritzi and Edward Cohen, who reintroduced the restaurant in 1977. One of the Cohens’ first chefs was Nora Pouillon, an Austrian who went on to open the organic-minded Nora Restaurant, also in Dupont Circle. Unusual for an inn, the Cohens let employees share the property. Three family members are still involved in Tabard as minority owners.

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Fast forward to 2024. Much of the food appears to have been inspired by Dorothea Lange. Steak (a juicy, peppery filet mignon one evening) with skin-on smashed potatoes shares the sepia tones of pork shoulder propped with pearl onions and rutabaga. The pops of color are so rare that the beet salad, a bright hedge, took me by surprise – imagine Dorothy closing the door on Kansas for somewhere over the rainbow – but only because its neighbors on the table were mostly beige, including a dish of scallops. placed on a delicately sweetened turnip cream. The dish is simple and satisfying. Nothing wrong with that, but given the chefs background, I expect more jazz.

Here and there, small Asian accents surface. A whisper of lemongrass sharpens the buttermilk vinaigrette with an appetizer of thinly sliced ​​lamb carpaccio sprinkled with puffed rice for textural contrast. Good. Not so nice: Jerusalem artichoke fritters topped with candied sunflower seeds and a taste of onion jam. Donuts are (usually) doughy.

Some dishes excite in print and disappoint in the mouth. The young chicken brined in juniper, split and stuffed with wild rice, dates and chestnuts, is less so for its undercooked wild rice (and its chicken which can be dry). Salmon with marinated cauliflower arrives atop a pleasantly earthy vadouvan sauce – good so far – and warm to the touch. Cooking can be sloppy.

It may also encourage another try. (I’ve been there four times in two months.) Savor the mushroom tart, a taste of the forest on a fine pastry, or grilled trout with the skin on, supported by a field of creamy, meaty red peas from Sea Island.

The one thing the new chefs couldn’t erase from the menu was Tabard’s donut, a longtime brunch menu staple. The raffle, finished with cinnamon sugar, proved a highlight on a recent uneven Saturday morning, when I plucked lovely bites of pear from a stack of undercooked pancakes and put some side of raw potatoes the same way in favor of the tender, herb-flecked omelette on the plate. . Washingtonians can choose from a chicken coop of fried chicken sandwiches; the Tabard’s contribution comes with an audible crack but not much else to recommend it. I stocked up on the sandwich tangle instead crispy garlic fries and an order of deviled eggs. Their whites are beige from a soy sauce bath, the yolks are intense with the hot sauce and (let’s just say it’s not the case!) the trout roe added brightness.

L’Auberge du Tabard sends you on a sweet note, sometimes delivered by Zafrir: butter caramels and grape fruit paste garnished with harissa. They produce smiles all around. I only wish there were more delights earlier in the meal. By now, the venerable inn has more history than attention to detail on its side.

1739 N Street NO. 202-785-1277. Open for indoor dining and (seasonal) outside for breakfast from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. daily; lunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Wednesday and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; and brunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Prices: Dinner starters $12 to $50 (for caviar), main courses $22 to $59. Sound check: 77 decibels/Must speak out loud. Accessibility: The stairs at the entrance and throughout the historic restaurant, which does not have ADA-compliant restrooms or elevator, discourage the use of wheelchairs.

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