a little halibut, a little rhubarb, a little goatee

 photo of 1789 Restaurant entrance by KATHERINE & RYAN.

I tried to warn Len before we left home. “Wear a sportcoat.”

We were going to 1789 in Georgetown, after all. A pricey place where traditionalists tête-à-tête in beautifully furnished period dining rooms and rattle their jewelry between courses. I did not wish for George Washington to raise his brow in disapproval, or for any of Georgetown University’s alumni to bite their thumbs.

But alas! Len paid me no heed, opting for a pair of chinos and a golf shirt. Blame it on the heat, or the indefatigable spirit of rugged New Hampshirites. Anyone who lives by the words, “Live Free or Die,” is gonna do just what he wants to do.

As soon as we entered the two-story Federal period townhouse, the coat check girl greeted us with, “Sir, we require that gentlemen wear jackets.” I gave Len the “I told you so look,” but said nothing (a show of admirable restraint). “But not to worry,” she continued, “we have one you can borrow.” 

 John Carroll Room: we sat immediately to the left of the fireplace.

Once Len was fitted with a navy blue blazer (finally realizing we had to assume grown-up guises for the evening), we joined his cousin, Liz, and her daughter, Leslie, in the John Carroll Room, which is decorated with antique furniture, Currier & Ives prints, early maps of the city, and prints and paintings of Georgetown University. We had been to 1789 twice before, once sitting in the Manassas Room (Civil War theme, antique pig scalder light fixture), and the other time, in the Wickets Room (oak-panels, 19th century caricatures,”private club” feel).

Right about now, you may be wondering, why “1789”? A pivotal date for the city of Washington — the year Archbishop John Carroll (GU founding father) purchased the original site, when the Constitution was adopted, when Mayor Robert Peter incorporated the village of Georgetown.

All this is fascinating, but we were really there to celebrate several things: Leslie was visiting from Arizona, Liz recently had a birthday, and best of all, Liz had just received good news about her health. We settled in next to the fireplace and met our server for the evening, who reminded me a little of actor Rupert Friend — thin face, angular chin, scraggly moustache and goatee. He didn’t look a day over 15 (Len said 12), but was well practiced in suitable decorum and requisite stodginess. If you ever have any questions about dessert sherries or tawny ports, he’s your man.

 Executive Chef Daniel Giusti and Pastry Chef Travis Olson.

I do believe infants are taking over the world. For the veritable 50-year-old institution that is 1789, one would have expected a portly, silver-haired gastronome running the show in the kitchen. Not so — both Executive Chef Daniel Giusti and Pastry Chef Travis Olson are in their late 20’s. Less than a year after Giusti assumed the position in 2008, he was nominated for Rising Culinary Star by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, and just last month, the Association nominated him for Chef of the Year. Gayot has named Giusti as one of the top five rising chefs in the United States. Not bad for someone who made his “culinary debut” at age 15 as a prep cook for Clyde’s of Georgetown.

So did he live up to his reputation? Unequivocally, YES! The menu offers traditional dishes cooked simply with the freshest seasonal produce. There is just the right hint of youthful innovation to keep things interesting.

For my first course, I ordered a simple Petite Greens salad, not being one who covets quail, snail pot pie, or shad roe (I was also pacing myself for dessert):

For my entrée, I had the Alaskan Halibut (with young chard, morel mushrooms and lemon). The fish was tender and flaky, the sauce, exquisite without being overpowering. The mushrooms absorbed the buttery sauce for a divine burst of flavor with each bite.

Len had the North Carolina Day Boat Swordfish (fregula sarda, wild ramps, and gremolata). We discovered wild ramps are onions! Len remarked we had those growing in our woods.

Liz had the scallops:

and Leslie (1789 is her favorite restaurant), opted for the 6-course tasting menu, which included steak tartare, she-crab soup, oyster gratin, and herb-crusted roast lamb:

What about Travis Olson’s desserts? I like his interesting backstory — native of Virginia, whose parents (both ornithologists for the Smithsonian), moved to England when he was 12. Left alone, lonely, and missing comfort food type desserts from home, he began to bake. He must have inherited some cool “scientific” genes, working in his kitchen “lab” to create fancy European desserts such as éclairs, Sacher Torte and profiteroles. He obviously discovered his true calling in life, having been nominated by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington as Pastry Chef of the Year in 2009.

Travis is mostly inspired by fresh fruits, and now leans toward classic American desserts, such as pies, cakes, and shortbreads. I ordered the Rhubarb Buckle (warm vanilla butter cake, strawberry jam, anise ice cream on the side):

Leslie had the Meyer Lemon Doughnuts (tangelo ice cream, citrus, and amaretti):

and Liz had the Chocolate Chip Cannoli (ricotta cheese, marsala poached figs, pistachio di Brontë):

To top off a decidedly elegant, wonderfully satisfying meal, a plate of mini-cookies (the chocolate crackle was to die for):

Even as we were busy forging new memories with Liz and Leslie, others came to mind: Tanita’s limes, Aunty Ella’s rhubarb pie, Andi’s figs. The mere mention of pistachio di Brontë transported me to Haworth, and now I want to reread Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. This is how it is with a good meal — you are served the past, the present, the sensual, the tangible, the emotional.

After Len returned his blazer, we stepped out into the warm night air. Though it was fun being grown-ups for a few hours, we were glad to resume our child-like ways. After all, infants are taking over the world.

*1789 is located at 1226 36th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20007. Open for dinner only. Don’t forget your sportcoat!

Copyright © 2010 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.

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