Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Restaurant 41: Carlyle (Shirlington, VA)

Clockwise from top left: Goat Cheese and Spiced Pecan Salad; Crab cakes; Chocolate Flourless Waffle; Close-up of a Crab-Cake.

RESTAURANT: Carlyle (Arlington, Virginia)
LOCATION: 4000 S. 28th St. Shirlington (officially part of Arlington), VA 22206
DATE: June 18, 2005
FOOD: Warm Goat Cheese and Spiced Pecans Salad (field lettuces, dates, tomatoes & balsamic vinaigrette); Sauteed jumbo lump crab cakes (remoulade sauce, fries and traditional cole slaw); Shared for Dessert: Warm flourless chocolate macadamia nut waffle; Warm sticky almond toffee cake
BEVERAGE: Two Carlyle Pale Ales; Decaf Coffee
PRICE: Courtesy of my Mom

Shirlington, Virginia is a 21st century transplant of a Wild West town. The buildings are designed with a glittery contemporary architecture that is somehow soulless, sparking images of the fake facades of Tombstone or the setting of Gary Cooper’s “High Noon”. A planned community in the fullest sense, Shirlington has a movie theatre, a street of “hip” restaurants and bars, and boutique style shops. It’s like walking through a model of small town America at Universal Studios – the strip of trees even have Christmas lights that stay up year round. With the completion of a brand new apartment complex and downtown Washington just a five minute drive away, what more could a Yuppie possibly desire?

Perhaps the best known restaurant in Shirlington is the Carlyle, a nouveaux-American bastion serving foods that were trendy in New York a few years before. The molten chocolate cake Jean-Georges made famous appears on the menu as a chocolate flourless waffle. The wave of fruit, nut, and goat cheese salads can be found at the Carlyle in abundance (they even have these at McDonalds now). Seemingly, as soon as a once-innovative food becomes passé in New York, it somehow permeates to the rest of the country. For diners unknowledgeable, the Carlyle might seem imaginative and cutting-edge, but in reality, restaurants such as this are standing on the shoulders of New York’s giant chefs. This is understandable and entirely acceptable – on the condition that the food resembles its New York original in more than just appearance and description.

A glance at Carlyle’s appetizer menu presents a list of all the usual American bistro eclectic suspects – fried calamari, Tex Mex eggrolls, bruschetta, pot stickers. It’s gastro-globalization, less about maintaining the integrity of the cultures referenced, and more about combining as many toned down sure-fire favorites as possible. You can see the influence of Bobby Flay all over this menu.

This is not to suggest that the Carlyle fails in creating pleasurable food. It would be very hard to go wrong with anything on the menu – but it would also be difficult to go too terribly right. Dinners begin with the warm and delicious bread of the Best Buns Bread Co. (part of the Great American chain to which Carlyle belongs), located literally next door to the Carlyle. The raisin pecan is especially tasty, a tough, chewy crust complementing the soft, doughy inside of cinnamon swirls and sweet raisins. Following the bread, I started with the warm goat cheese and spiced pecan salad. I readily admit my favorable predisposition for salads enhanced with fruit and cheese, but Carlyle’s only resulted in disappointment. The mixed field greens were limp and sodden, the mix of dates, tomatoes, and vinaigrette generating a humid film amongst the lettuce that tasted like salad which had sat in the refrigerator for one day too many. While the spiced pecans blended sweet and hot nicely, the seared goat cheese was bland and uninteresting, the distinctness of the cheese obliterated by faulty preparation. Noticeably absent from the salad were pepper and salt, the overwhelming taste being that of undiluted vegetable oil.

The market-priced crab cakes I selected for my entrée were a dramatic step-up from the salad. Credit the Carlyle for not scrimping on the crab, as these pan-fried cakes were bursting with meat. Golden brown and lacking the oily residue that crushed the goat cheese, the crab cakes were well-seasoned and impeccably fresh. The only downside of the cakes was that they came on top of the Thousand Island dressing like remoulade sauce, which basically tasted as artery-clogging heavy as putting ketchup and mayonnaise together would suggest. In fact, the crab cakes would have been better off if they had been completely unaccompanied as the runny and oppressive coleslaw and flat, listless French fries offered another example of Carlyle’s inability to season their food satisfactorily.

Dessert was yet another round of mediocre but ultimately uninspired offerings. The flourless chocolate waffle is synonymous with the Carlyle’s prestige in the Washington area, but it was chunky and overcooked. The liquid chocolate center designed to spill out from the inside had solidified like the yolk of an overdone poached egg. A bit better was the almond-toffee, which while denser than a Bush cabinet member, was at least enjoyable and not absurdly sweet. When coupled with the saucer of caramel sauce served with the dessert, it was like a poor man’s version of Moto’s warm date cake. The massive size of the desserts was also a bit disgusting and further proof that bigger isn’t necessarily better, size doesn’t matter, quality trumps quantity, and any other applicable cliché.

Though the Carlyle has been around for years, our meal was also beleaguered by service problems. Our waiter, though obviously new and still learning, had issues with time management. He forgot to bring the bread until reminded numerous times and our entrees arrived before anyone had had time to eat even a third of their salads. Having the dishes tumble one on top of another invoked a rushed feeling that is the last thing you want when dining at a semi-upscale establishment. On top of that, my family was celebrating my Grandmother’s birthday, but the music in the restaurant was so loud, it strained even my young ears to make-out the conversation at our table. Unless chomping down at TGI Friday’s, music should be background and when it hinders dialogue, the entire meal is dampened by the excessive volume. Carlyle is part of the Washington based Great American chain of restaurants headed by Executive Chef Bill Jackson that includes Artie’s, Sweet Water Tavern, Mike’s American, and Silverado. Growing up, I’ve visited these restaurants numerous times and they were and are always packed, often with waiting times stretching into the hours. But as our meal at the Carlyle showed, these are “it” spots not because of the food, but despite it. There’s enough slightly above average dishes on the menu to make Carlyle better than okay. But just like the “town” of Shirlington that it calls home, Carlyle was high on artifice, but definitely lacking in substance.

RATING: 5.0/10


Anonymous said...

Don't forget Great American Steak and Buffet!

Fairlington Blade said...

It's a shame you decided to review NY vs. The World rather than the restaurant. Rather than enjoying the chocolate waffle for what it is, you dismissed it entirely as molten chocolate cake precedes it. Fortunately, Washingtonians (and their food critics) know the quality of the restaurant.