Bourbon Steak: New Money on M Street
"I don't know, I'm three million dollars ahead but if I sell now my tax bracket is going to kill me."
"Does it matter? Sell! You're up three million-what does it matter if you pay a million in tax?"
Yesterday my wife retired from almost forty five years of civil service work: she was the fourth longest tenured employee of the National Science Foundation having started straight out of high school at seventeen. Tonight, at her suggestion, we celebrated her retirement at what arguably, is one of the hottest restaurants in D. C.: Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons Hotel.
Truthfully, Carol wanted a good steak, one on par with Luger's or with Vescovino in Panzano. She also wanted seriously good lobster bisque and a great, calorically intense, disgustingly rich guilt inducing dessert, one that would justify a week of apparent anorexia.
We read longingly about butter poached steak in the Four Seasons' new restaurant. I'd been to Michael Mina's restaurants in San Francisco and Vegas and had a worthwhile experience with his $50 lobster casserole there as well as exemplery seafood. Steak? Butter? A marriage that would work; if we could only add lard it would be a relationship to last forever!
I thought about all of this while we were seated in the dining room facing a distant translucent glass wall, partially obstructing the kitchen behind it. To our left was a table of four, two couples all dressed casually. The men sat across from each other, their wives to either's side. All four were competing to see who could be the most assertive, the loudest.
The men were one upping each other with their successful investments, their wives talking about an island in a distant ocean. At some point both wives became part of the conversation and we discovered they were equally competitive, i.e. they were perhaps even louder in a restaurant that was quite noisy to begin with.
Many years ago when I was going to college I drove a cab in Bethesda and Potomac. One evening I picked up a man, in his '60's in the '60's and drove him from National Airport to his house off of River road in Potomac. Somewhere west of Falls road we turned off and passed, then, a new home that had a long driveway. There was a tennis court in front of the house visible from River Road. Behind the tennis court was the driveway and entrance to the enormous house.
He lived down the next driveway. This was at least a quarter of a mile long before we found his house. Lights were on "next door," there was action on the tennis court. At ten o'clock at night.
I'll never forget his comments: "new money." "New money builds the tennis court IN FRONT OF THE HOUSE, not behind. New money wants everyone driving down River road to see the tennis court and the lights. Everyone to know they can afford it." His house had a tennis court and a swimming pool. Both behind it. And the neighbors' lights, "new money's lights" kept him up at night.
I thought about this tonight while being forced to listen to the loud, oafish, classless and profane couples seated next to us. At some point Carol and I stopped talking: it was just impossible, we couldn't hear each other. The men seemed intent in having everyone know the decision one had to make: sell the three million and suffer the pain of his tax bracket. At some point he also became profane in describing the "f------- pain."
Almost forty five years is a long time to spend at one job. At what point do I turn to the person seated next to me and politely ask them to lower their voice, although what I really want to do is scream in their face to shut up!!! We're spending money, too, to be here!
Anyway, fifteen minutes into the meal our order was taken for the second time. The waiter forgot to write the appetizers down on the first visit. Three small cups of french fries were brought to our table with three companion sauces: homemade ketchup with a kind of pickle relish mixed in, "chef's homemade" bbq sauce and a creamy, onion flavored dip. All three were weak imitations of either Beck's homemade mayonnaises or what I've had in a number of frites stands in Belgium. The french fries cooked in duck fat tasted no different than Beck's either. I believe that Beck's are frozen. (What do I consider good french fries? Central! The best in the D. C. area and among the best anywhere.)
We had a discussion about whether or not we should move to another table: this was a dinner that was going to cost me $300 or more for the two of us and it was becoming absurd that we were going to share it-unintentionally-with the apparent "new money" sitting next to us.
Heavily buttered and crusted rolls soon arrived, all which had sat in an oven too long. More butter seemed to have been brushed on them to soften the crisp folds. They weren't very good.
Carol's lobster bisque was served along with my tuna carpaccio which I was told was one of their specialties. Its preparation was a real show: lines of a half dozen ingredients stretched out on a plate flanked a mound of raw, red tuna and were then, in a two minute tableside assembly, piled onto a plate and served with grilled pita. The lobster bisque was absolutely outstanding: intensely flavored stock flavored the satiny soup with chunks of fresh lobster. Just outstanding-a Great Dish. The tuna carpaccio was another matter: it was busy. There were so many flavors competing against the tuna that the texture of the fish just seemed cold and moist with grains competing to distract me from its flavor. I didn't like it. Certainly not at $21. (Kinkead's, in my opinion, has the best tuna carpaccio in the D. C. area.)
They were served their entrees! My God. We could hear each other talk. I could even hear couples three tables down in the other direction and almost every word they said. Incredible!!! We could hear each other in Bourbon Steak! For the first time since we had sat down. All because they were eating, busy scarfing down their food.
I actually began to enjoy my wife's lobster bisque, sipped on my 55 degree Washington cab (fairly priced @ $60 from an outstanding wine list) and thought that, perhaps, just perhaps the french fries were better than I had first thought.
Fifteen, twenty minutes passed. Blissful silence. All four were mopping up their plates, too busy to talk islands or a short sale. I began to like Bourbon Steak, even began to like (just a little bit) the reported $40 million dollar minimalist renovation of the hotel. (I'm not a minimalist, at least not in a $700 a night hotel room...)
Unfortunately they finished their dinner. And then it started. Again. And louder. Much louder. They were on now their third bottle of wine. I noted that the last bottle was about $40 off of the wine list yet they were pouring this themselves in their decanter from an earlier bottle.
Our steaks arrived with full throated exclamations from the next table-they were really getting loaded. And more profane. And even louder.
Carol's $38 filet, ordered medium was rare and my $46 strip steak ordered medium rare was medium well. We switched. We were both happy. Her's was an absolutely delicious, juicy, butter crusted steak that I ate and mine was a very good, flavorful, thoroughly cooked chunk of dry aged beef that she enjoyed.
At the table next to us they were served dessert. Once again, they stopped talking. For us peace ruled the world again. Dinner was enjoyable, the food which we had exchanged was really good, we were really beginning to like Bourbon Steak. Perhaps a good idea, after all!
They finished their dessert and asked for the check. The two men competed to see who would pay. Now, for anyone reading this, please forgive me for what I am about to write: I could not wait to see what kind of credit card would be presented to pay for this. A black Centurian card from American Express? One hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year charged to qualify for the $1,000+ a year fee? A platinum card? Certainly, alternatively, a platinum VISA or Master Card? After all, their tax bracket! To hell with waiting to sell the stock, sell it now!!!
What kind of a credit card would this check be paid with? Did they really have a tennis court in front of their house? For that matter could they have even lived in Potomac or Great Falls or McLean or was this all just my imagination fueled by a forty year old memory? After all this was a hotel-I had absolutely no idea where they lived. Was this actually happening to us, on the night we were celebrating my wife's almost forty five years of working for the same agency?
A green card.
A green American Express card was placed in the leather folder with the check. I choked! A green card! My God! Carol laughed.
Bourbon steak brought me my ice cream. Cinnamon, hazelnut and caramel. It is no secret to many reading this that I am obsessed with ice cream. I have a 40+ year old White Mountain freezer and use rock salt and ice along with Lewes Dairy heavy cream, Vermont butter and make caramel from scratch-in all four of the pots which are required. I also make hazelnut, grinding the nuts under a towel which i repeatedly slug a rolling pin back over. Cinnamon? That I haven't made. Yet.
Bourbon steak has, well, not very good ice cream. For me the flavor of the caramel would be an embarassment, I think the hazelnut would be laughed out of Firenze and the cinnamon, well, it had real promise. The first two were mostly milk if not all milk but the flavor really was lacking. Still, the cinnamon had promise. I should have asked if it was made in house.
They paid their check. With the green American Express card. One man said to the other as they were standing up, "you know, we owned this restaurant tonight." "Yeah, a great night...thanks for sharing it with us."
They did own it. They also owned ours' and others' tables because of their lack of consideration and disrespect of those around them-and the restaurant.
After they left, we sat for another 25 or 30 minutes. Bourbon Steak seemed much more civil, much more relaxed. I could hear Carol, I no longer felt that I might go hoarse. Once again I could hear bits of conversation two and three tables down. We decided that to be fair to Bourbon Steak we would need to return. And sit in one of their two window tables which face Rock Creek park. I took one last bite of the melted cinnamon ice cream. It was really growing on me. We did need to come back.
But we didn't want to meet "New Money" again on M street.
LOL I too just found this classic Joe H write-up thanks to the thread bump. Well worth the wait. The green card detail was perfect.
My $0.02 on "we owned this place": Not a very DC thing to say at all. That's something I'd expect to hear back home in RI, maybe.
Since there's likely zero chance those clowns have even heard of chowhound, they'll never know how much entertainment value they provided (at the expense of Joe and Carol, unfortunately).
Thanks for your observations Joe, it proves that it's not just the food that makes an evening. By the way, best to you and Carol.
I too, dislike encounters with that sort of person. You know that they are not in DC to make things better for anyone but themselves. They don't even know what a tacky, brassy scene they create, because it's all about them.
You were able to take the situation and let us laugh at their obvious insecurity. Thanks.
Thanks for the very nice words. Carol and I appreciate them. Several comments:
We didn't move because when we arrived the restaurant was full. It was only perhaps thirty minutes or so after we were there that a table or two opened up. By then we had a collection of plates and glasses on our's and it would have been a real production to move plus it would have drawn attention to us in the room and I didn't want to do that. Also, to be honest, I wasn't sure exactly how loud the restaurant really was. When the two couples next to us were talking it was extremely, almost painfully noisy because their loud voices caused many others to compensate and raise theirs'. When they were eating, almost immediately, others' were much lower. Still, Bourbon Steak is noisy. Much more so than, say, Inox.
The sirloin strip steak with an 18 hour caramelized stock reduction for onions which top it at Inox is better than either the strip steak or the filet mignon at Bourbon steak. In fact that is the single best steak dish of any kind in the D. C. area.
I wonder how much Bourbon Steak is impacting Citronelle with Citronelle laying off staff and changing their menu? Bourbon Steak IS the "in" restaurant right now in the D. C. area probably drawing from the same market.
I believe that for future celebrations (excepting almost 45 year retirement parties-there won't be another) we'll return to a more intimate, personal room like Komi or Obelisk. We need to make the trek to Frederick and try Volt, too-we haven't been yet. I also look forward to Roberto reopening his Laboratorio.
re: Joe H
I understand that Obama was at Citronelle on Saturday night. Bourbon Steak was very crowded when we were there yet a report on Rockwell from a week earlier notes it was less than half full at 7:30 which is about when we arrived. I wonder if his presence at Citronelle impacted the number of people dining there with Bourbon Steak more crowded than normal?
Thanks for the review - Sorry about the experience, however. "New Money" or "Old," rich or poor, there are folks out there that just don't get it. I wish you would have asked to be re-seated, since your food did taste better when the other table was quiet!
Remember the days were restaurants of that caliber were hushed? Your experience reminds me of the scene in "The Blues Brothers" when Jake and Elwood are in the restaurant: "How much for your daughter?!"
I know things cannot always be perfect in any restaurant, but I too had a steak that wasn't cooked right at "Bourbon". I asked to have it fixed only to have it come back almost exactly the same. For that price bracket, I expect them to get it right at least the second time.
Lets hope that these kinks get worked out - Bourbon has much potential and I'd like to see it live up to that.
Here's a hint - Next time, get together with another couple or two and ask for the private room - It is much quieter and the only conversation you hear will be your own.
Congratulations to Carol!
Just my opinion, but at a restaurant of the calibre of Bourbon Steak, a noise problem should not go on so long that a patron has to ask to be reseated. The restaurant staff should have anticipated and/or intervened long before that became necessary. Was there nobody on the floor noticing this playing out?
Crackers, true - But I have yet to encounter a restaurant of any calibre that has noticed this when I've been involved. Then again, I only go a restaurant in that class a few times a year, and a "nice" restaurant a few times a month.
I would love to hear from someone in the restaurant business...How do you deal with this if there are no empty tables to reseat them to? In Joe's situation, it seems like the loud table was affecting a large area. Do you tell them to hold it down?