Note to self: when it comes to Sunday brunch near the Kennedy Center, it’s probably best to try to do it ANY OTHER TIME BESIDES George Washington University’s commencement weekend. Call it a hunch, but it’s likely to be just the slightest bit easier to find a reservation in the area.
Thankfully, we turned to those foodie enablers over at OpenTable, and they were quick to offer a handful of reservations that were available before the matinee performance of Ragtime that we were going to see. They even had a 1000-point reservation at Hook…and it HAD been a while since we’d been to Georgetown’s temple of sustainability. Having just written about former Chef Barton Seaver’s newest venture (the soon-to-open Blue Ridge), we decided to check out Hook’s brunch.
When we arrived, we were shown to our usual table in the front window. Now don’t read too much into this – we seem to have a knack for making reservations at times when that front table is unoccupied, and most places along M Street love to keep their window tables filled to draw in the foot traffic. Within minutes our waiter arrived, asked if we were all right with filtered water (a subtle way to guide diners toward the most environmentally friendly option), and took our drink orders.
A make-your-own-champagne-cocktail bar was tempting in its array of accompanying juices and liquors, but the need to buy a full bottle of sparkling wine made that option a non-starter for us. For me, there are few brunch joys greater than a good, spicy Bloody Mary. Hook’s signature version of the classic drink immediately distinguished itself with its garnishes: house-cured bacon and a cocktail shrimp replaced celery and turned it into something approaching an appetizer. Elizabeth’s choice, the Pear Ginger Lemonade, was a light and refreshing way to start the meal…and probably a better complement to the seafood we’d be enjoying than a tempting Nutella Hot Chocolate.
Of course, before we could even think about our fish, there was the issue of Heather Chittum’s baked goods to consider…
Even before Barton Seaver’s departure, Hook had been earning praise for its pastries and desserts at volume similar to that offered its mission-driven seafood menu. In fact, Heather Chittum is Washington’s reigning Pastry Chef of the Year, having won the title at the 2008 RAMMY awards. Whenever receiving advice on dining at Hook, you could always count on hearing the command “Save room for dessert!”
At brunch, Chittum’s pastries take center stage early on. Scones, croissants and almond croissants, all made fresh in-house, are the first options that greet you on the menu. Although the $6 price tag is a bit steep for a pair of pastries, the croissants were everything we look for: airy and buttery inside, with a flaky crust that had just a bit of chew to it. Accompanied by raspberry jam, they didn’t last very long before we devoured them. We’ve had our share of croissants at DC brunches, and these were among the best we’ve ever tried.
From there, we passed on the array of soups, salads and seafood that made up the appetizer menu and turned our attentions to the “breakfast” and “lunch” options. It took a while to make up our minds, due in part to the array of tempting dishes and in part to the disorienting layout of the menu. Fish names and other menu items appear in bold down the left-hand side of the page, with their descriptions next to them. But the section titles appear above the dish descriptions, and everything has a slightly disjointed feel as your eye jumps from the bold names to the corresponding details.
This being Hook, we both decided to play to their strengths and order fish. I opted for the bluefish, conveniently identified on the menu as being sourced from New Jersey. Its accompaniments, green beans and carrots, were dressed in a pesto that was flavorful without being overpoweringly garlicky. The fish itself was cooked well, flaking to the fork and still moist throughout; unfortunately the skin failed to crisp and so I ended up removing it and setting it to the side. All in all, it was a solid presentation of a fish that I tend to enjoy whenever I find it on a menu (which is surprisingly not that often considering its relative sustainability and availability on the east coast).
Elizabeth’s choice blew mine out of the water, though, and in retrospect I totally should have seen that coming. She was smart enough to opt for the menu item that best combined Hook’s two strengths (fresh seafood and pastries) in one: the crabcake sandwich. Large lumps of Virginia crabmeat, held together with a minimum of breadcrumbs and other fillers, blended with a tangy aioli to create a top-notch crabcake. Big deal, you say, right? I’ve had plenty of crabcakes in DC with great crab-to-binding-agent ratios. Sure…no argument here. But what were they served on? Hamburger buns?
At Hook, the crabcake meets its match in a housemade brioche bun. The texture, heft and buttery taste of this baked delight more than stand up to the briny-sweet flavor of the crabmeat, resulting in a sandwich that is as much about the bread as it is about the filling. No contest – Elizabeth clearly out-ordered me.
We passed on dessert, despite seeing several tempting options (including a lingonberry torte we remembered from a previous visit which is paired with a taleggio – strong Italian cheese – ice cream). After all, we had a show to get to!
But we were pleased to note that many of the touches that made Hook a media darling under Chef Seaver remain now that Jonathan Senningen is at the helm in the kitchen. The open kitchen at the back of the restaurant gives a glimpse of what’s going on as your food is prepared. The sleek space still gives off an air of destination dining. And locally sourced proteins and veggies, housemade breads and pastries, and sustainable seafoods are all menu options we like to encourage (though we were reminded that ‘sustainable’ and ‘locavore’ don’t always mesh when confronted by Australian-sourced salmon on the menu).
Hook’s brunch made for a great revisit. Although the prices are too high to make it a regular weekend destination (Georgetown rents will do that to you), it’s certainly still a splurge worth enjoying.