I type atop the lowered tray table of aisle seat 20-C on Aeroflot flight SU105, Moscow bound. At this point, all of my worldly possessions are either stored away in the garage of a family friend’s Takoma Park home or stuffed into suitcases in the belly of this former Soviet vessel. I’m leaving D.C. for a few months at least, setting out into the world yet again with the proverbial bindle slung boldly over my shoulder. It’s only now that I have lifted up and out of the District that I dare draft these words.
I did not enjoy Rose’s Luxury. In fact I quite disliked it. I arrived there with every intention of being blown away after months of reading reviews that seemed solely to be positive, doting prose odes to popcorn soup and pork lychee bowls. I had made a hell of an effort to stay clear of the place until I could find someone willing to eat through the menu with me, because a happy hour cocktail and nibble would just not suffice at a restaurant so loudly lauded the do-no-wrong golden boy of D.C.’s alternative food scene. The venue is exciting. At 5:30 curtains are drawn to the stage: a dazzling open kitchen where men who cook put on a riveting performance under harsh white light. They chop and garnish and dress and trim, eyebrows furrowed with concentration as they examine each outcome. When dishes finally hit the counter I half expect applause from the audience of guests who watch. The bar is more relaxed, the cocktail list modest and trendy (e.g.: white Manhattan). The dish-ware is hand-painted porcelain, which hints that grandma food might be within reach. Service is friendly, the mood lively. Rose’s cheeks burn with the healthy glow of a restaurant in its prime.
But my initial giddiness and enthusiasm faded more and more with each dish. While the food was colorful and funky, nothing was heart-felt, substantial, real. The intention rang clear: to throw out the rule book and invent something abnormal and delicious. The cuisine aspires to be rebellious and avant-garde and I guess it achieves that goal, at the expense of also being just plain bad. The best dish by far came at the very beginning, the complementary house bread presented on gorgeous china. It was a pillow-soft loaf of fluffy Potato Bread served with whipped butter, chopped chives and potato cracklings made to resemble bacon bits. The consistency was that of brioche: thick but spongy, easier to rip to pieces than to slice. There was also a subtle, brioche-like sweetness to the bread, which helped it contrast with the salty bits of fried potato skin adorning the dollop of whipped butter. After being smeared generously on, the latter melted from the steam rising off the bread. A clever play on a baked potato and a wonderfully comforting start to the meal. Then came the house signature: Pork Sausage, Habanero and Lychee Salad. It’s a neatly arranged bowl with vibrant red onion, coconut milk foam and lychee halves adorning the top. Peanuts and pork creep down below. The idea is for the guest to crush everything up and make ugly within seconds that which took the kitchen so much longer to assemble. And then you kind of just scoop the homogenous mash into your mouth and swallow what feels like something that has already been chewed once before. The combination of flavors has a Thai vibe to it. Sweet and floral coconut balances the savory zing of red onion, the heat of habanero and the toasty taste of peanuts. But the tiny bits of garlic-y sausage are overpowered by the not-so-subtle exotic sweetness of lychee, which are too tough to break into smaller bits and which consequentially dominate the dish both in flavor and texture. The onions are also kind of difficult to mash in with the pork so they dangle, long, off each spoonful awkwardly. The little soup of coconut milk and meat jus at the bottom of the bowl is a nice treat best saved for the end to soak up with leftover potato bread. A good dish overall but not one that lives up to the hype. We ordered the Grilled Jerk Chicken, which came with a slaw of ripe and raw papaya. There was a mound of dill raita on the side, with chunks of mango peeking out. And a charred lemon wedge too. The dish was overdone in quite a few ways. The chicken was dry. The tough fibers of flesh stuck into my gums like vicious wooden splinters. The jerk rub was burnt – not peppery, like I hoped as I took my second bite – but burnt to a bitter char, further emphasized by its juxtaposition to very acidic slivers of papaya dressed with vinegar on top. The dish really only needed one source of bright acidity but it got three instead: papaya slaw, yoghurt and cubes of unripe mango. The dill raita was already too busy in that the tropical flavors of the mango fought with the more modest herbal notes of dill and the fermented acidity of the yoghurt. It didn’t really make any sense on its own, even less when combined with papaya on the opposite side of the plate. I guess the charred lemon was a nice touch, giving forth a warm, brown, caramelized juice with a lot more character to it than fresh lemon juice. If only there was something worth squeezing it over… A dish I did not mind was the Grilled Asparagus served in a bright green pool of fragrant chive oil. Sprinkled over the top were chunks of pineapple, fresh chives and jalapeño tempura. My notes from the night read, “Saving grace. Good char and heat, too much perky tropical stuff from pineapple.” The asparagus had a pleasantly caramelized exterior and retained a crisp bite that went nicely with the crunchy fried jalapeño. The chive oil was velvety smooth and very bright in flavor, my dinner companion’s favorite component of this dish, my favorite component of the entire meal. Pineapple chunks were meant to add contrast and to bring sweetness and acidity to a largely savory dish. The intention was good, perhaps, though my bias against sweet, tropical fruit in savory salads prevented me from being able to enjoy the result the way it was meant to be enjoyed. Good intentions were also there in Marco’s Gnocchi, making this dish an even greater disappointment than if it had been slapped together just for kicks. Through what seemed to me a form of hypercorrection, gnocchi that were prepared specifically to not be tough or chewy came out the extreme opposite. They had no firmness of body whatsoever. They were light but too light, delicate but to the part of falling apart prematurely in the spoon before reaching the surface they were meant to eventually melt over, my tongue. Snipped into the correct shape, the gnocchi were fluffy and smooth but they were undercooked and doughy like clumps of potato puree. The pillows were modestly dressed with shaved Parmesan and black pepper, the simplicity of which I appreciated. What I did not appreciate was the puddle of salty cheese water they were squatting in. If the latter had been a thicker, more luscious sauce I would’ve forgiven its plain flavor, but as it was the liquid added nothing but unnecessary moisture to gnocchi which were already disintegrating. As I attempted to suck raw bits of potato dough from between my teeth I could not help but come to my final conclusion: this was a failed attempt to recreate a nonna-type classic. The Crispy Squid Salad consisted of little hunks of fried squid doused in creamy avocado sauce with a crunchy slaw of radish tossed in lime juice and chopped cilantro. Not a bad dish all around, though the thin slivers of squid got lost in their fried casing and the jalapeño heat of the liquid guac overpowered any marine flavor there might have been to there to begin with. My notes on this dish read “Made me crave a cheap margarita.” I guess this kind of dish is something I expect to find under the name “Calamari Bowl” on the happy hour menu of some local Tex-Mex dive. Crunchy fried stuff and guacamole – cheap tricks. From Rose’s Luxury I expected something a bit more complex. While most dishes at Rose’s Luxury fell short of the high expectations brought about by the restaurant’s spotless reputation, the Strawberry Pasta was in itself a stupid and obnoxious plate of food. The strands of spaghetti actually had a nice texture. They were bouncy and firm. But the addition of ripe strawberries to tomato and red onion in the sauce coating the noodles resulted in a repulsive mess of flavors. And I guess this is where my path diverges from the path of those who believe that there are no rules in contemporary cuisine. As far as I’m concerned pasta with tomato sauce is a savory dish. It has established itself as a savory dish in the eight or nine centuries that it’s been around. To play around within the confines of savory is okay. To push the limit, wildly even, keeps things exciting. Maybe the ricotta is drizzled with honey. Maybe the tomatoes are cleaned up with the addition of lemon zest instead of garlic and black pepper. Maybe some umami earthiness is incorporated with fungus or a fishy marine brine with the addition of anchovies. Pairing the thing with a sweet wine might help round out the flavors. There are plenty of ways to showcase creativity and talent by subtly pulling at the fundamentals of Spaghetti Pomodoro. A whole revamp in flavor profile is not necessary. It shows an impulsive and careless attempt to produce something that stands out. And I guess it succeeded but not in a good way. The sauce was watery fruit jam spotted with languid, mushy chunks of strawberry whose life and essence had been cooked right out. It seemed like neither of the three ingredients – strawberry, tomato or onion – understood what the hell their role was to be in this unfortunate melodrama. Like sorry individuals duped into a horrible blind date by foolish friends, they pushed each other away. I pushed my plate away with just as much resolve. A resounding no from me on the strawberry pasta. At the end of our meal, Chef Silverman brought out a taste of a dessert he had recently been working on. It was a Pâte de Fruit made from the juice of unfermented Gewürztraminer grapes, sanded in sugar and served on a shiso leaf. Expecting a mild fruit flavor, I popped the entire thing into my mouth at once and regretted it horribly. The thing was tart, painfully tart. The acidity burnt my tongue and shook me up like a shot of cheap booze on a dull, sleepy night. Texturally the shiso leaf didn’t have much to do with the gummy pâte and was just a bit rough and vegetal on the tongue. A rude awakening from a largely mediocre meal.
Maybe D.C. sees Rose’s Luxury as young, wild and adventurous. To me she’s a sniveling teenager stomping wildly for attention and, ultimately, extorting it with forced success. After many jabs at my palate that evening I was craving something real, a stew perhaps or some hand crimped ravioli. Call me a food prude but if it means not having my senses so brutally violated I think I’ll stick with the classics.