UPDATE: THIS RESTAURANT IS NOW CLOSED.
Plaudits: Washingtonian 2010 #81, Washingtonian 2009 #79, Washingtonian 2008 #57
Restaurant Week. Poll any group of foodies about this biannual DC tradition, and you'll probably yield the same kind of polarizing opinions that you might get from a discussion of Napoleon Dynamite; you either love it or hate it. Official Co-Writer of DCWD CC, who up until recently worked in the industry herself, argues that this is exactly the worst time to go to a restaurant; chefs and restaurateurs know that this is a clientele that will probably not be coming back and so are perfectly willing to dumb down menus and use subpar ingredients. I for one am decidedly for Restaurant Week; as a self-admitted food lover on a budget, I think it's a gift-wrapped opportunity for those with lower salaries to experience places they normally wouldn't get a chance to. And it's not like the best chefs in DC are going to cook worse for one week. You just have to search for places that offer meals off their regular menus, and where you couldn't normally get a quality meal for $35.10 (this year's dinner price).
Hook is one of those places. Official Friend of DCWD HR Intern and I arrived at Hook for our 7pm reservation and were led on a maze-like path through the restaurant, first up the stairs (who knew there were two floors?) and then into a side dining room. This caused HR Intern to make the obvious joke that they were hiding us away from all the real diners; the host smiled weakly at this.
Hook's dining space is divided into four spaces: the downstairs bar area, a downstairs space for about 30 divided into what seemed like mostly four-tops, an upstairs dining area with a small bar (no seats) and a slew of four- and two-tops, and a smaller dining room which is off to the side. We were seated in this last area, and the atmosphere of the room was decidedly more casual and intimate (it gave me the sense that it was a private dining room, but there were at least 20 people seated with us, including a large party of 12). The vibe in each section is also different; by the time we left, the downstairs area was energetic and buzzing and it took at least a little effort to leave, while the upstairs maintained a quieter feel to it (granted, this was a Thursday night). The most interesting aspect of the dining space we were in was a flatscreen TV on the wall, which played a DVD of Our Blue Planet, a documentary featuring a melange of fish swimming about (dinner theater I guess?). But considering the difference in buzz level, depending on your date, it might be worth calling ahead to request a specific one of these areas.
If you couldn't tell by the name itself, Hook is a seafood restaurant. More importantly though, like a handful of restaurants that have popped up in the last few years in DC, Hook prides itself on its mission: sustainable and locally-procured food. And like many of these restaurants, that's the first thing the wait staff impresses upon you. That's not a make-or-break point for me, but for others, especially given the state of the overfishing of certain high-end species (Chilean Sea Bass comes to mind), this is a huge factor. hook actually just scored a two blue fish score Fish2Fork's sustainability index, on a scale of five red fish to five blue fish (wow, too cute by half), so it does a decent job of living its creed. Just a thought.
Like I mentioned before, Hook offers many of the same courses for Restaurant Week as it does normally. Our waiter, who was exceedingly friendly the whole night, was also pretty knowledgeable about the varieties of fish (though I guess that's to be expected in a seafood restaurant) and was spot-on in providing us reference points on taste and texture for some of the more obscure entrees.
Even without the waiter's suggestions, HR Intern focused in on two appetizers that we both wanted equally: the tuna tartare and the grilled calamari. The tuna tartare was served alongside what was described as lady apples and spiced carrots, but tasted more like cranberries, with microgreens on ginger/cilantro oil. The tartare was very nice, and the cranberries' tartness played well with the tuna. For me, the grilled calamari, which sat in vichyssoise and was topped with a crispy potato salad, was the better of the two. I am an absolute sucker for vichyssoise, and the calamari was well done. The potatoes were a nice addition.
HR Intern went with the Artic [sic] Char which was served on top of a sweet potato and celery root puree. The bite that I had of it was delicious, cooked very well with just enough of the dark pink in the center to maintain the original ingredient's freshness. I went for the Bluefish (partly because I'd never had it, partly because it was sourced from my home state of New Jersey), which came with a creamy polenta spread, green beans, carrots, and basil pesto.
Now, fish to me is best when it melts in your mouth. By that metric, this bluefish was absolutely divine. I couldn't stop raving about it to HR Intern (who agreed with my opinion wholeheartedly). The fillet slid apart beautifully along the grain of the fish as I cut it, and each bite maintained the perfect texture balance between the crispiness of the skin and the smooth substance of the fish. The saltiness balance was also spot on. On the downside, outside of the polenta (another one of my food loves), the vegetable sides were blah, and the basil pesto seemed wholly unnecessary.
Dessert was something of a letdown after the pitch-perfect entrees. I was seduced by our waiter's suggestion of the "Tiramisu" (the quotation marks are Hook's), which he described as a deconstructed version of the classic dessert. The actual dessert was decidedly less exciting, and was basically a thin bar of semisweet fudge-like chocolate, served alongside a dripping of darker chocolate sauce, a ladyfinger, and mascarpone ice cream. HR Intern went for the cheesecake, served on a blood orange sauce, which made a better impression on both of us.
Overall, Hook was a really enjoyable experience, and admittedly unexpectedly so. Obviously the fish at a good seafood restaurant is going to be good, but I was surprised at the perfection of my bluefish (in my opinion, a better meal than I had at much more highly regarded Kinkead's), which ratcheted up the meal from a run-of-the-mill 4 stars to a 4.5 star rating. The dessert was probably the only thing holding this from being a 5-star meal (and maybe even knocking on the door of my all-time Top 5 DC meals). The service was excellent and knowledgeable, even with it being crowded, Restaurant Week, and us not ordering wine. The crowd at the downstairs bar was vibrant, and probably good for a informal first date/meet-up albeit a little noisier than some would like; the upstairs dining space is much more suited toward a date down the line.
Food Rating: **** (out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Smart casual
Bar Rating: Classy Crowd to Suits Scene
Vibe: Energetic to noisy.
Cost: $$$ (out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
Pairing: Shopping on M Street (there's a couple small bookstores right as you come into GTown that I love, and depending on your budget, window shopping on the right night in GTown is always pleasant)