Friday, July 24, 2015

DC's DINNER LAB at the Smithsonian is a DUD! (7-23-15)

Last night I decided to try something different since we became Smithsonian Associates earlier this year. The Associates are celebrating their 50th Anniversary with three different pop-up meals using DINNERLAB ( and when I signed up back in May it sounded quite exciting. I was told the location would be announced a week before as well as the menu and last week when my email came with the menu, my expectations dropped. Turkey Roulade as a main course!
This was the second of the dinners and I met several people on arrival and we decided to sit together. Two were Associates like me and Dinner Lab virgins, two were Dinner Lab members and said that almost all they had attended were really great meals. When they reminded me that this meal cost $160.00, which I had forgotten, I said it better damn well be impressive, as for that price an excellent tasting menu with wines could be had in so many places here in DC!
The event was held at the famous Smithsonian Castle and when we arrived we were served tasty Gin drinks with fruit juices and I think Cahacha, although I am not sure. They were yummy, but then I noticed the wines being chilled in huge ice coolers at the bar, and the choices were pretty mediocre.
Some folks were passing little shooter glasses which I soon found out was a Cherry Gazpacho that was tasty, but won no prize on first tasting.
We were escorted into the large and truly amazing Commons Room (see my photo on FB) which was impressive, but sadly the wooden chairs were so uncomfortable, I felt my rearend was going to slide out the back of it. We were at three long banquet style tables arranged in the room in a truly medieval style that fit the Gothic Cathedral setting of the room with its beautiful windows and array of large stuffed animals. This was indeed a plus. I then noticed that the Chef (whom I had googled earlier and found nothing on), Daniel Stoller from Seattle, had decided to use a Victorian-era inspired menu to fit with the Smithsonian Castle venue; which made so much sense.
We had menus and I now saw the gazpacho was called "Cherry Vanity" and was laced with buttermilk and had trout roe in it, which I missed when I drank it like a shooter. I took another one and ran it across my tongue as the roe exploded and now I truly loved the little treat or small bite billed as course #1; it was simply an amuse.
The chef spoke and explained his dishes, and I asked the folks who were DinnerLab members if the meals were usually just an amuse with 3 courses, and they said they were often 5 or more courses, so I began to feel quiote cheated again with my $160 pricetag(plus a $2 online booking fee).
Course #2 was David Copperfield's Flowers-Artichoke Barigoule/Chevre & Raspberry/Nasturtium
I chose one of the 4 wines offered which was a Rose Vinho Verde from Conde Villar 2014 which was quite nice as it had that Vinho Verde fizz but not too much and was bone dry. I thought it would pair with the vinaigrette. There was also a cheap sparkling wine, but those tend to give me headaches; Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay were the other choices as no red wine is allowed in the Smithsonian, despite the really cheap industrial carpet in this gorgeous room. Barigoule is a fancy word and I looked it up and traditionally it means stuffed with mushrooms, but these were just boiled hearts, and using the word "these" is generous as I had only ONE on my plate; other folks got up to five! we all agreed the salad was tasty, but needed more goat cheese as well as only a tad was sprinkled on top (and mine needed more chokes).
In between courses, a Smithsonian expert spoke at great length, and since we had only had a light salad and a shooter or two, we just kept drinking as the servers were quite generous and the service was indeed superb. The guy was interesting for a bit, but grew tedious, although I adored his three-tone cool shoes (from Nordstrom, I later found out). We tried the chardonnay(Albertoni 2013 Sonoma) and it was quite awful, so settled on the 2013 Estrella Sauvignon Blanc Proprietor's Reserve from California ( very fancy name for a wine that runs under $10/bottle).
The next course was Heathcliff's Bird-Turkey Leg Roulade/Roasted Plum/Porter Jus/Kamut & Sweet Pepper and was overall filling, but bland and the plum was actually served cold, which we all found quite odd. Kamut is a filling grain and was quite tasty, and while the chef said there was corn, tomato and basil in the dish, it was minimal and I assume in the small roulade centers.
Dessert was Marie's Cake (the chef explained name for Marie Antoinette--as in "let them eat cake")-Chocolate Semolina Cake/Pistachio Butter/Rhubarb Candy/Anise Panna Cotta (I passed on the anise as I detest licorice) and this dish was a super hit. Dense chocolate cake had a thick swirl of the butter which was almost like a paste and the rhubarb candy was like fried fruit candy that was akin to a thick potato chip. The woman next to me said it was truly like a pork rind made of fruit and I think she nailed it on the head. Either way, we gobbled up dessert and headed home, but only after I filled out the suggestion form saying that while they had great service in great setting, the food itself left so much t be desired, especially with that price tag, which I still can't get over!