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Dec 17, 2007 06:07 PM

Tired, Warm And Nondescript: A Birthday Dinner At Charlie Palmer Steak

Thirty minutes ago we returned home with over a pound and a half of nearly raw, gristled glistening beef which was left over from our dinner at Charlie Palmer Steak tonight. Dense woods back to our house in Reston with hungry squirrels, fox, deer, raccoons and the occasional emaciated turkey vulture looking for his or her next meal.

Tomorrow they will be fat. Or, at least I think, happy. I threw the entire plastic container as far as I could from our deck, deep into the woods, not wanting it to despoil our temperamental garbage disposal. The $84.00 porterhouse steak had been sadly, grossly undercooked. Looking at it in our kitchen I thought it was worthy of George A. Romero ending a fast or, at the least, a hundred or so of his famished zombies looking for their next meal. Frankly, my wife and I agreed: cannibalism would never have existed on Earth if this was all that was available for dinner.

Our birthday celebration could have been a bit tastier than it was.

Charlie Palmer operates one of the better restaurants in New York, Aureole. Several years ago he opened an outpost here at the base of Capital Hill catering to lobbyists and industrialists hoping to impress their clients. A luncheon visit several weeks after opening was promising: at the time I thought we were fortunate to have a talented chef think enough of us to open his first national outpost here.

Tonight I returned for the first time since his opening, perhaps three or more years later.

His restaurant was not what I remembered.

Walking in the door there is a nondescript bar that, for me, felt like it was adjacent to the coat room at the old American Legion hall off Sligo avenue in Silver Spring. There was nothing remarkable about it. Just nothing at all. It was, well, plain. Nondescript. Vanilla. Certainly not the manly, clubby arrived-at ambience of a Capital Grille. Not the faux leopard print/chrome/black leather and vinyl upscale tacky ambience of the mature adventurer's Prime Rib nor the stately oak and brass, caricatures whose personality spill over the walls of the Palm. This was a plain bar with dull colors which invited carrying one's drink quickly into the dining room beyond.

The dining room ambience wasn't THAT bad. It just wasn't that special either. Still, what this report is about is the food. Which, for $275 (including tax and tip) just wasn't that good. And we didn't even have dessert and our wine, an '04 L'Ecole 41 Merlot was about $60. Frankly, in retrospect, it's remarkable that meal of this presentation could have cost this much.

But I need to explain.

We had two appetizers: a very good butternut squash soup with creme fraiche. It was delicious. Flavorful, complex, a real credit to the kitchen. I had shrimp (well, some kind of thawed, mealy, head on crustacean-a prawn if you will) that topped a flavorful green risotto which had been baked and dotted with an emulsion that I, honestly, can't remember. (We did not take a menu with us nor does the on line menu describe this dish.) The flavor was excellent; in fact the potential was there for an outstanding dish. It's just that the prawn was mealy and the risotto had been baked, boiled and/or left to stand in a pot for an excessive time on a stove somewhere. What I was served was simply tired: this really could have been a signature app. But it wasn't. Somewhere in prepping for the evening's dinner freshness was overlooked, a theme that was to be repeated a number of times over our next courses.

We ordered a three inch thick Porterhouse to share. It was brought to our table in a cast iron skillet, a nice presentation before being taken back to the kitchen for carving. When it returned, on two eleven inch porcelain platters, we saw how frighteningly undercooked our medium rare beef was. The problem is that it had been sliced into quarter and half inch thick slabs. Both of us are veterans of Pittsburgh black and blue and we thought we could survive this with the interesting addition of an array of mustards which accompanied the nearly raw meat.

Sides included a goat cheese variation of mac and cheese along with "truffled twice baked potatoes" ($14! for one split in half.) and creamed spinach which incorporated light cream rather than whipping cream. The mac and goat cheese was OK, the twice baked truffled potatoes were warm. Well, ok, when I really hammered the fork into them the center was room temperature. At best. And the creamed spinach made me feel proud. Of what I cook for Christmas dinner every year which involves cooking down a couple pounds of spinach, nutmeg, Lewes Dairy heavy cream, etc. In fact I think any home cook could take a date or spouse or partner to Charlie Palmer's and leave feeling quite confidant in the next meal they will prepare at home.

It couldn't be much worse.

On a positive note the service was exemplery. Our waiter who hailed from Houston and knew Pappas Bros. Steak Houses couldn't have been a better representative. If only Pappas Bros. would open an outpost in the one hundred block of Constitution!

We skipped dinner and stopped at a Harris Teeter in Ballston where I bought a cheap, half frozen birthday cake. I sliced it apportioning all of the icing for us and a bit of the cake for texture. The dry, dark chocolate cake left over joined the gristled beef which the turkey vultures will have for dessert tomorrow in the woods behind our house.

This could have been a very good meal. But it was not. I feel that I threw away $275 for several courses that I would have been embarassed to serve in my home. Someone needs to tell Charlie Palmer that now that he has ten or more restaurants spread around the country he needs to climb on a plane and visit several of them: especially the one here. His recipes are intact; the preparation for us tonight was just awful.

Because of my business I typically take my vacation in December or January. In past years, when in town, we've gone to Maestro, the Lab or Citronelle. Overseas, we've been fortunate to have had wonderful experiences in restaurants that we've likewise returned to. Celebrations that we have spent a year waiting to relive.

Tonight, Charlie Palmer was a birthday without a celebration. In fact the only celebration will be in the woods tomorrow behind our house...

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  1. Joe - thanks for a descriptive and humorous review. I really wish more people would take the time to offer reviews. This kind of post is what makes Chowhound worthwhile. Just curious, though...why didn't you send the steak back? At a place like CP, the staff surely would have graciously accommodated least, I hope they would...I tend to be pretty accepting when things go awry, but if I was paying $84 for a steak I'd expect it to be perfect!

    3 Replies
    1. re: dcandohio

      Thanks, dcandohio for the very nice words. We thought about sending it back but it had been sliced into 1/4 and 1/2" thick strips with the bone left in the kitchen. Presentation included mushrooms layered over the steak with their cooking juice. We weren't sure how they would continue to cook the many strips; if they had it certainly would not have tasted the way it would have if cooked correctly and then presented. To be honest, asking them to replace an $84 cut of meat was daunting for me plus with the three sides already on the table I didn't want them to have to be replaced also. I felt that it would be ten to fifteen minutes before a "new" steak was returned and after a couple of bites of the lukewarm sides feared they would have been cold by then also. I've sent food back before but this was different. Literally everything for the main course seemed to have a problem of sorts; only the mac and goat cheese was really acceptible and that wasn't very good. Our dinner had been thrown together-there seemed to be too much that had to be replaced. Frankly, after a couple of bites and not even the mustard helping we knew that we had made a huge mistake with, for us, no real option. If this had been a single cut of beef that could be cooked for another minute or two it would have been different.

      1. re: Joe H

        Joe, you're too kind. I hope Charlie Palmer appreciates your money if not your bad press for his establishment.

        I suppose that it might be a good thing to put into the mental filing cabinet for anyone going there for the same sliced steak you had to ask, when they brought it out whole in the skillet before taking it back for slicing, would be to ask the waiter to cut into it and check it to be sure it was done to your liking. It must be pretty tricky to cook a 3" thick hunk of beef, but spectacular when it comes out right.

        1. re: MikeR

          In retrospect we should have asked for this. Afterwards, with the ten or twelve slices/slabs of steak served along with the three sides that had another 10 to 15 minutes on them (or in the case of the potatoes NEEDED another ten to fifteen minutes) it was too late to ask for a replacement (s). If, at the moment of initial presentation we had done that much of this could have been averted and the meal might have been entirely different. Now, I remember a presentation in Florence at diVinus on the far side of the Arno where a similar Bisteca Fiorentina was presented and cut by the server at the table, sliced twice to the bone over a bed of arugula. The presentation allowed us to see how the steak was cooked. Juice spurted out coating the wooden platter it rested on. There, the correctly charred and properly prepared several inch thick Porterhouse elicited anticipatory moans; at Palmer's upon clearing away the many mushrooms that obscured the beef we had a different reaction than we did in Italy.

    2. Joe, I am sorry for both you and (with fond Birthday wishes) Carol. For what its worth, your dinner experience at CP is not much different from mine . . . except I did not have good service. After two sub-par dinners, I have crossed it off my list. One thought: is it possible that CP puts all of its energy into doing a good business lunch trade?

      2 Replies
      1. re: Bonz

        I'm convinced that they emphasize service more on weekdays, both lunch and dinner. That's when their high-powered clientele from politics and the media are dining. On weekend evenings those clientele clear for the hinterlands, and it's us mere locals who remain...

        1. re: Bonz

          Hi Bonz! We wondered if the chef was off-it was Monday night and whoever was in charge of the kitchen just wasn't very competent. On my one visit several years ago it was for a lunch and the experience was different. This, as my first evening visit, was the first time that I saw the dining without light coming in the windows. I didn't really like the amibience either. Last, after a lengthy dinner at Aquila y Sol in Mexico City last week (arguably the best restaurant in the city) and an extraordinarily flavorful seared, then sliced steak with a chipotle salsa as one of the courses this was a huge disappointment. Literally in about 96 hours I had one of the best steaks I've ever experienced and perhaps the worst.

        2. I've never had a good meal there, having tried several dinners and several lunches over the years. In fact, I've been served several inedible things, including corn soup that was thicker and chalkier than school paste. I've never had a good steak there. And I've never had good service there.

          I believe they make all their money renting private rooms for lobbyists to host "receptions" or "stuff money in a Congressman's pocket". I see those rooms in use day and night.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Pappy

            I think you're right, Pappy! Last night two of these rooms were filled with people.

          2. Well written Joe! My condolences for a disappointing experience for you and yours. But thank you for sharing your experience. I feel your (burp!) pain.

            Another reason to avoid eating out on a Monday. Quality of food is probably the last thing the capitol crooks care about when schmoozing.

            1. Joe, Sorry to hear about your birthday dinner, but your experience couldn't be further from what I've experienced the 8 or 10 times I've dined at CP's. Whether it has been just a lunch for a couple of us from the office (my office is right behind the restaurant) or a wine dinner for 20 of us, the meals have always been excellent and the steak cooked exactly to my specifications.