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The Melrose Hotel’s Jardenea sets a stylish stage for chic cuisine. Photo by Greg Powers

Plate of the Union

by George W. Stone | DC magazine | January 8, 2013

It happens every four years, like a wonk Olympiad, staged in a climate that’s usually as warm as a liquid nitrogen bath at Minibar. For one frenzied January weekend, Washington pomps up and shimmies down as our newly inaugurated president hits the party circuit. Friends, Washingtonians, countrymen: shake it!

But for all the buzz about inaugural balls, the real dance is around reservations. Who’s dining where and with whom? It’s a moment enterprising restaurants—especially those attached to hotels where revelers are staying—have seized to make a splash. Four years ago, The St. Regis opened the doors to Adour, Alain Ducasse’s sublime homage to his French culinary roots. And the Four Seasons launched Bourbon Steak, Michael Mina’s swirling social nexus. Both restaurants were designed to showcase their hotel’s commitment to modernity with pedigree.

For Jardenea, a new restaurant in the smartly revitalized Melrose Hotel, inauguration presents a moment that, as Al Gore might say, is both a crisis and an opportunity. Billed as a “farm-to-fork” eatery, Jardenea (a name derived from the French word for garden) aims to be “inventive, current and conscientious” by placing high importance on sustainability, freshness and regional sourcing. Alas, it’s opening in the dead of winter. And it’s not alone. The Mayflower is banking on its new eatery, Edgar Bar + Kitchen, to remind guests that long before Eliot Spitzer checked out, J. Edgar Hoover stepped in nearly every day for a quiet lunch of chicken soup and cottage cheese.

Unlike The Mayflower, which Harry S. Truman called “the second-best address in town,” The Melrose Hotel has no presidential legacy. But it does have providential new ownership, which is hoping that Jardenea will evince the energy of its administration.

A pair of skillfully seared coriander-dusted Maine scallops promises good things to come. The appetizer is served over a plucky fava bean succotash and an “Appalachian corn broth” flavored with fennel pollen, which brings an almost curry-like complement to the coriander. It’s a great dish to share or—better yet—an ideal partner to thick, rich Chesapeake Bay crab bisque with wild mushrooms and chive oil. The main attraction here is the crab, and there’s lots of it. My soup gained heat (perhaps a bit too much) from a heavy dose of pepper, but on a cold night, these two dishes together would make a warm-hearted dinner.

On a similar note, a piquant Maryland crabcake holds its own in a city that can get crabby about local favorites. Jardenea’s is meaty and plump, and picks up some personality from piquillo peppers. Fried green tomatoes, served alongside, add a Southern touch. Perhaps this is a nod to Executive Chef Nate Lindsay’s previous tenure at Azurea, Jardenea’s sister restaurant at a resort in Atlantic Beach, Fla. In yet another appetizer, the chef stretches his coastal coverage with a small bowl of Prince Edward Island mussels, steamed in a garlicky heirloom tomato consommé and spiked with toasted curry. The dish capably merges Canadian sea-freshness with an exotic Far Eastern spiciness.

These small plates offer a glimpse of a restaurant on the cusp, flirting with possibility. Geographically, Melrose Hotel is on the cusp as well. Poised between Foggy Bottom and Georgetown, the hotel languished in its neutral space until Remington Hotels stepped in to give it an empire-glam makeover. Bland was banished in favor of deep silvers, blues and blacks, and ornate geometric forms. The Manhattan-meets-M Street look is a welcome shock of chic in an increasingly stylish neighborhood.

But, Jardenea, alas, has neither the subtlety of Adour nor the sizzle of Bourbon Steak. It doesn’t have the star power of Art and Soul, chef Art Smith’s booming Southern bistro at The Liaison Capitol Hill hotel, or the sangfroid of The Federalist, the heritage-chic restaurant at The Madison. And it lacks the brazen commitment to imperial elegance at any price that The Jefferson’s Plume steadfastly upholds. That last one can be forgiven—Mitt Romney, after all, lost the election to Barack Obama’s populist policies.

What Jardenea does have is an uphill battle. Almost all hotel restaurants are challenged to define an original vision, and yet feed the guests breakfast lunch, dinner and midnight cheeseburgers. Such multitasking is the reality, but there’s little excuse for three entrées to arrive at my table identically adorned with sautéed cherry tomatoes and green beans. Was there an irresistible special at a local farmers market where cherry tomatoes are still in season?

One of the dishes, Hawaiian mero (grouper), was genuinely good—even if it arrived without the advertised prosciutto crisp, but with the aforementioned, but not listed on the menu, vegetable duo. The generous filet of fish was seared to a golden hue and served over blue corn polenta, creating an exotic color contrast, its flavor boosted by a tangy Gorgonzola cream sauce. It was a simple but winning dish. The same cannot be said for Hudson Valley duck breast, which—apart from featuring duck—bore no resemblance to its description. A mound of “white bean cassoulet” was a racy red, perhaps stained by its zippy merguez sausage, and the medallions of poultry lacked the crisp skin the menu promised, as well as its identifiably ducky flavor.

A cheeky cocktail list features more martinis than you’ve seen since Clinton was in office, none of them artisanal, and all of them mixed in the lobby bar. The wine list is heavy on American varietals (some of them very good), but light on deals. I chose a Willamette Valley pinot noir that the general manager heartily recommended. The wine was good enough, but what was truly remarkable was its price: Jardenea charges $56 for a bottle I later found at a store for $14. That kind of inflation is something Ben Bernanke should look into.

But no restaurant (or president, for that matter) should be held to every campaign promise. So with a little seasoning, Jardenea’s lofty farm-to-fork ambitions could bear favorable fruit. If the latest wave of local launches is any indication, Washington is powering up for a hungry term (fiscal cliff be damned). And in a city where proximity to power is the most valuable tool, having a Pennsylvania Avenue address can’t hurt.

The Melrose Hotel
2430 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

Open daily. Breakfast, 6:30-11:30am; lunch, noon-2pm; dinner, 5-11pm

Dinner small plates: $9-$16
Dinner entrées: $18-$30
Desserts: $7