A Lunch That Won’t Disappoint

Posted February 27, 2008 at 5:24pm

When celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck threw open the doors to The Source, his first foray into Washington’s dining scene, the town’s food cognoscenti wondered if the Asian-influenced cuisine would shine as brightly as Puck’s name promised.

The answer, it turned out, was yes. The sleek restaurant in the soon-to-open Newseum drew critical acclaim and its tables, long waiting lists. [IMGCAP(1)]

Now, nearly four months later, The Source has opened for lunch, leading to a new question: Can chef Scott Drewno translate the dazzling, sometimes over-the-top dinner dishes into streamlined fare to sustain Washington’s power-lunch crowd?

Lunch service started just a few short weeks ago, but I’m confident that the answer, again, is yes.

Drewno, one in Puck’s army of young chefs (he worked under Puck at Chinois and Spago in Las Vegas and under famed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten at New York’s Vong) is making The Source a destination stop on the town’s already varied upscale-lunch circuit. The lunch crowd is already taking notice: On recent visits, at least a few Members of Congress were spotted among the suit-clad patrons.

In addition to the prime locale along Pennsylvania Avenue, just a short distance from the Capitol, and the airy view from the floor-to-ceiling windows of the upstairs dining room, the food is the best reason to choose The Source for a working meal. The menu is tailored for a midday meal: A three-course prix fixe menu provides relatively fast eating, and entree-sized salads make for lighter options that won’t have you sleeping through an afternoon hearing.

Instead of the usual bread basket, an unexpected little treat arrives first: slices of pleasantly chewy Indian-style naan bread and small dishes of dips, a smoky chutney and a cooling yogurt. They’re an introduction to the globe-trotting cuisine to come (brace yourself for a tour of Asia and its subcontinent) and a welcome break from the dull bread selection found on too many downtown tables.

A favorite appetizer is the tuna tartare, silky bits of fish enhanced by the heat of wasabi and served in three crunchy little cones of miso and sesame seeds. The presentation is reminiscent of mini ice cream cones, but the flavors are far more sophisticated than any kiddy fare. Drewno was wise to keep this dish — which has become one of The Source’s signatures and is a favorite of the dinner crowd — on the lunch menu. Crisp-skinned suckling pig is a richer way to start a meal, with a crunchy, seared exterior crowning the luxuriously fatty, spice-scented meat.

The kitchen certainly has a way with high-heat cooking. If the crisp pig is Exhibit A, the crunch of the skin on the red snapper entree is enough to make the case. The fish is served skin-side up, with the velvety flesh perched on a bed of chile-spiked pineapple, itself as much a study in contrasts as the snapper’s crisp-soft juxtaposition. A Thai-style red curry sauce drizzled over the top might seem like overkill, but the effect is to pleasantly turn up the heat even more.

The chicken entree offers more evidence of a deft hand with texture. While the prospect of a plate of simply prepared chicken isn’t usually enough to send most diners’ pulses racing, Drewno’s version is more than the sum of its parts, with its seared skin giving way to flavorful, juicy meat.

Entree salads, a popular lunch choice, get Drewno’s full treatment, and they’re rendered every bit as elegant as the regular entrees. A salmon salad, in particular, stars a perfectly silky piece of fish surrounded by a mosaic of colorful vegetables. Beets shaved into colorful, delicate curlicues, coins of pickled radish and thin slices of avocado are foils for the salmon. A calamari salad weaves crisp-not-chewy curls of squid with leafy frisée for another light lunch option.

While there’s plenty to love on every plate, there are a few missteps. The two small, slightly mushy shrimp garnishing the snapper were nothing more than a distraction, and the fried rice studded with spicy sausage accompanying the chicken was unappetizingly oily.

Desserts, courtesy of pastry chef Karen Crawford, offer indulgent ways to finish off a meal, and they’re surprisingly homey for such a sophisticated setting. A chocolate purse — molten, gooey chocolate wrapped in a wonton wrapper — is one of the most high-concept offerings and a reason in itself to visit The Source. A promising-sounding plate of cookies was generous in volume and yielded a few delicious treats, like a puffy coconut macaroon, though others were underwhelming. And the creatively deconstructed apple-crumb confection was brightened with the addition of finely diced crisp fresh apple.

The sweets are worth lingering over, and the restaurant’s dining room offers more reasons to stay and admire the view. The Source’s décor, mostly minimalist and in subtle whites and grays, doesn’t try to compete with the main attractions, although it isn’t without drama. Glass-encased wine racks turn the restaurant’s California-heavy wine list into a chic design element, and cool geometric light fixtures add sparkle.

Like in the theater, when audiences sometimes worry that a matinee won’t have nearly the excitement of an evening show, it’s easy to wonder whether a workaday lunch at The Source will pack the same punch as its dinner theatrics.

But judging from the increasingly bustling dining room, lunch at The Source clearly demands an encore.

The Source is located at 575 Pennsylvania Ave. NW and is open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Friday.