Thu 18 Dec 2008
When it comes to steakhouses, Washington isn’t exactly hurting. Whether your tastes run to the traditional (the Prime Rib, the Capital Grille, Morton’s), the purist (Ray’s the Steaks) or even the celebrity chef-directed (BLT Steak, Charlie Palmer), DC and its neighbors offer plenty of ways to satisfy your inner carnivore.
Clearly there are plenty of reasons NOT to leave the city for a good steak dinner. But now there’s one really good reason to do it anyway: Old Hickory Steakhouse at National Harbor.
Two weeks ago, we were invited to participate in a media dinner with the folks at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, our first opportunity to visit the new home of The Awakening since the various components of National Harbor started opening for business in late spring.
Old Hickory is the marquis restaurant at the Gaylord, and our dinner showed us exactly why that is. From the elegant decor (meant to evoke the classic refinement of a Georgetown grande dame’s home) to the trio of tasting portions we were served (each a smaller version of an appetizer or entree available on the full menu) to the temperature- and humidity-controlled cheese ‘cave,’ everything about the dining room is there to impress.
Our menu, some more views of the gorgeous interior and the food, and details on how to get there after the jump.
Walking into Old Hickory, you find yourself facing an inviting fireplace flanked by two beautiful chairs. In this moment, the townhouse illusion is at its most pure. Walking past the white marble bar with its antique absinthe fountain and into the dining rooms, every design element we see – chandeliers, paintings, side tables, etc. – reinforces the feeling that we’re about to sit down to a society dinner.
After a brief introduction by the chef, we were immediately treated to a trio of tastes. We began with a miniature version of their almond-crusted crabcakes – a signature appetizer made with jumbo lump crab meat and served with an avocado mousseline (basically an airy sauce with cream whipped into it just before serving). We were amazed that the crabcake’s light breading was somehow able to bind the large chunks of crabmeat that were packed into the flavorful little package. Next came a small cut from a grass-fed beef tenderloin, so tender as to allow us to cut it with butter knives (I’m enough of a dork to have tried). The beef was served with a stacked presentation of truffled mac & cheese that was the only heavy-handed note on the entire plate. Our third taste was another signature: braised beef short ribs served with root vegetables in a rich red wine reduction. The meat was absolutely fork-tender and practically melted as we ate it.
From there, we moved on to something that I had been looking forward to experiencing ever since I first read about it – the cheese service. Old Hickory Steakhouse employs the only full-time maitre d’fromage I’m aware of in the DC metro area (though CityZen offers a similarly well-appointed cheese cart). Carolyn Stromberg, whose pedigree includes stints at Cowgirl Creamery, Cheesetique and Palena, oversees the entire cheese program for Old Hickory. She purchases the cheeses, sees to their care and maintenance, and then personally guides patrons through the selection process to find the cheeses most likely to please.
To properly care for the cheeses once they’ve got them in house, Stromberg and the folks at Old Hickory store them in a cheese ‘cave’ – really a temperature and humidity-regulated storage cabinet. Inside the cabinet, Stromberg has wrapped the cheeses so they can breathe and she sees to their placement within the cave to make sure they maintain their peak flavor and texture until they arrive on your plate. As you might expect, there are some rare gems among the cheese selections, making Old Hickory a must for true DC caseophiles like myself.
As is the case with many of the steakhouses around the area (Ray’s the Steaks being the exception that proves the rule), a meal in these rich environs can get pretty pricey. Appetizers run $10 to $21, entrees start at $28 and climb to $44, and side dishes are $11 (though they’re portioned to share). Unlike some of its downtown competitors, though, Old Hickory leaves no question as to why you’re paying such a premium. Each dish outshone its predecessor, and the quality of the food is only surpassed by the attentive servers who had an answer for every question we could think of (though our waiter was prone to asking “very important” questions as to how we were enjoying our meal throughout the evening).
The restaurant is open from 5:30 to 10 PM nightly, allowing ample time to linger over a cigar – either one of your own or one available for purchase from their Spanish cedar humidor. Old Hickory takes its role as a fine dining establishment seriously, maintaining a ‘business casual’ dress code. No sneakers, t-shirts or jeans are allowed, and I’ve read about situations where they have politely refused to seat individuals who were underdressed and then offered to call in a reservation for them at another restaurant.
Situated just east of the Wilson Memorial Bridge, National Harbor provides some truly gorgeous views of the Potomac and the flight path to Reagan National. Unfortunately, this location makes getting there something of a challenge on weeknights – a definite obstacle to attracting patrons from the city and Northern Virginia. With Beltway traffic frequently snarled from 5 PM until 7:30 or later, what should be a 15-minute drive (we timed it on the way back into the city that night) can easily stretch to 30, 40 or more. This may become a weekends-only spot for locals by default.
If our dinner at Old Hickory was at all representative of what the average diner can expect, Washingtonians would do well to look south the next time they crave a steak done well…why let convention-goers have all the fun? As more and more establishments open at National Harbor – they hosted a weekly farmers’ market this year and they’ve recently welcomed Bobby McKey’s, a dueling piano bar, to the neighborhood – this could very easily emerge as a day-trip destination with plenty of nightlife options. For now, Old Hickory Steakhouse is expensive, but worth the trip on its own – just make sure you time your visit to avoid rush hour traffic!
Old Hickory Steakhouse
Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center
Oxon Hill, MD 20745