I am a sensitive person. When criticism comes my way, I take it very personally. A negative comment is examined and reexamined, until I can figure out how to address the issue if at all possible. A reader recently took me to task for attributing a movie quote incorrectly. “Wow! If you cant even get a movie quote right, I’m not sure if I trust your review.” My heart sinks upon reading this. I am so sensitive that when I get an unfollower on Twitter (and I know just who they are, thanks to unfollow), I agonize over what I have said to make them leave me. As someone who writes critiques that aren’t always 100% positive, it should be easier for me to field criticism. I guess it really is easier to dish it out than to take it.
On a recent visit to DC’s Equinox I can’t help but fixate on The Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema’s recent one and a-half star review. It is filled with criticisms, many of them directed at recently-appointed Executive Chef Karen Nicolas. In April Chef Nicolas was named by Food & Wine as one of the 10 Best New Chefs for 2012. According to Sietsema “The magazine’s tastemakers must have hit the restaurant, which enjoys a perfect location near the White House, on one of its best days. Since Nicolas has steered Equinox, I’ve had four meals there: the first so underwhelming that I thought she needed more rehearsal time.” Ouch.
Equinox is owned and operated by one of DC’s most respected chefs, Todd Gray. Gray has earned numerous awards including the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington’s 2011 RAMMY Chef of the Year, along with five nominations for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Mid-Atlantic Award. I know this review has to sting.
I am not wary about dining at Equinox, despite the review. One of my dining companions is a local wine writer (Grapelines). He knows Chef Gray and his wife Ellen Kassoff, and is a regular at Equinox. I trust that we will be treated royally and that our meal will be top-notch. I’m more interested in how the review has affected business and staff morale. More about that later.
There are a variety of appealing options on the menu, but eventually every one of our party of six decides to order the vegetarian tasting menu. It has universal appeal to a group that includes three non-meat eaters: beet salad, pumpkin soup, pasta with brussels sprouts, honey and spice roasted eggplant, and pumpkin pave for dessert. However, when it’s time to place our order, I hesitate. I am encouraged by my friends to venture in a different direction, for the sake of the blog. “I do love lamb,” I say somewhat wistfully. “Go for it,” says the group nearly in unison. I consent, as long as they agree to share my order of house-made gruyere gougères.
Sietsema comments that he finds the gougères heavy. This must have been addressed since the review, because they couldn’t be any lighter. With a touch of garlic, rosemary and sea salt, the gougères are an indulgent beginning, particularly since they follow the unexpected delivery of a basket of flaky cheddar biscuits.
The first course of the vegetarian tasting menu is citrus marinated beet salad. I’ve ordered a portion for myself, since the dish initially drew me to the tasting menu and I don’t want to be left out. Ricotta beignets, green olives, and pomegranate seeds accessorize lightly dressed micro watercress. The female diners share a twinge of guilt about the ricotta beignets in the salad. More pastry filled with cheese. This meal is feeling very decadent and we haven’t gotten very far. But, there is no place for guilt when enjoying such a polished and elegant meal.
I linger over my beet salad, while the rest of the group delves into a complex roasted pie pumpkin soup with poached quince, hazelnut crumble, and curry leaf. It is a perfect late autumn soup- not too thick or too sweet. There is a beautiful layering of textures and flavors.
The next course for the veggie group is hand torn malfatti pasta with brussels sprouts, mushrooms and roasted chestnuts. There is agreement that the flavor is noteworthy, but the pasta noodles are clumped together, which makes it difficult to eat. Regardless of the awkward texture, the ingredients blend to form a cohesive dish.
I am only slightly self-conscious as a generous portion of lamb arrives. Thyme roasted Pennsylvania lamb loin is perched atop rainbow swiss chard, caramelized eggplant, and sweet garlic jus and studded with olives. The lamb is tender and beautifully prepared, but it’s the charred eggplant with honey and seven spices that provide wonderful bursts of sweetness.
While I am savoring the lamb and eggplant, my companions are enjoying a similar dish (minus the lamb). Honey & spice roasted eggplant features many of the components that are on my plate and then some. Stellar dishes…both of them.
The pumpkin pave with cinnamon ice cream, hazelnut streusel, and pumpkin seed brittle looks incredible, and I am assured that it is. However, I am steering away from anything hazelnut, even though my husband and friends insist the hazelnut is subtle. They love it.
I opt for warm quince crisp. It’s the only misstep in an otherwise stellar meal. The flavor is lacking (my friend thinks something is off about it, but I don’t agree) and there’s nothing to hold the dessert together. On the other hand, the coconut sorbet is quite good, so at least I’m left with some sweet satisfaction. All in all we have enjoyed an excellent meal with impeccable service, exceeding our expectations.
I am left wondering about that Washington Post review. Was Tom Sietsema totally off base? A few days after our dinner, I have an opportunity speak with owner Ellen Kassoff about how things are going post the Post review.
“Every review is an opportunity to review ourselves, who we are, and what we are doing. While criticisms can be harsh, we welcome them,” she says. She believes that Equinox is held to an extremely high standard because of her husband’s length of experience. It was difficult for him to hand over the title of Executive Chef. Sietsema agrees saying the appointment of Nicholas in that role ”suggests a veteran chef admirably willing to let go of some ego.”
Following the review Kassoff said that she felt some initial anger, but subsequently they took an opportunity to reexamine what they ultimately wanted for their restaurant. As a result, Chef Gray has reclaimed the kitchen. The menu has gone back to its roots (more hearty and rustic food) and Gray is doing more of the cooking and working to mentor Nicolas.
The good news for Equinox is that loyal customers haven’t left. They seem to be more loyal than ever. Kassoff says Equinox is having one of its best years and the love and support they are hearing from their customers are helping staff through what was initially a very tough time. Kassoff notes that it is easy to get distracted by what’s written in print and online. “We just have to get back in the kitchen.” Reviews and online comments can be combative and cantankerous but as Kassoff says “It’s just dinner. People really just need to be nicer to each other.”
I am surprised by this conversation, as I truly expected a blasting of the critic rather than a story about taking criticism to heart. No one likes getting a bad review. But you have to admire restaurant owners who use it as an opportunity to move forward, rather than dwelling on the negative. A lesson I hope I can apply the next time someone throws some disapproval my way.
Equinox, 818 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, DC
Washington Post review