When Donald Trump made his first public appearance at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., he was there to kinda, sorta put his birther claims to bed. But not before he boasted “this will be the best hotel in Washington.” (Short pause.) “It will be one of the great hotels anywhere in the world.”
Soon after its debut on September 12, the press pounced: A Daily Beast headline proclaimed it was “Fancy, Expensive, and Probably Doomed,” while The Washington Post called it “a luxury hotel his blue-collar supporters can't afford”; Mother Jones surmised it would be a “financial flop,” and The Washingtonian noted “The Biggest Hurdle Facing DC’s New Trump Hotel Might be Donald Trump.”
Lost in the media fury was the fact that the hotel also is home to two new fine-dining options — BLT Prime and the Benjamin Bar & Lounge, restaurants that have been all but ignored by critics. If you look to Donald Trump’s other hotel restaurants, you’d know that’s a misstep. The Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago is home to Sixteen, which has two Michelin stars, while Trump’s New York City hotel boasts the highly regarded Jean-Georges.
That’s where we come in. Early on a Thursday, we went to check it out — a casual sampling of appetizers and drinks with two local chefs: Victor Albisu, chef-owner of the internationally acclaimed Del Campo in nearby Chinatown as well as two Taco Bamba taquerias in Virginia; and Abisu’s current executive sous chef and former sous chef at D.C.’s BlackSalt, Faiz Ally.
We sit down at a marble-topped table with gilt flourishes by the Benjamin Bar & Lounge. Two flat screens flank either side of the bar, one showing ESPN, the other Fox News. The sound is muted, but the talking heads are clearly yelling on both channels.
A waiter comes over with drink menus. All of the cocktails are $20, except the restaurant’s signature drink, the Benjamin — a rye and vodka concoction that also features caviar and oysters. It costs $100. The wine list features more than 60 varietals, and five wines are so rare that they are offered by the crystal spoonful. Champagnes will be sabered upon request.
“All the champagnes can be sabered?” I ask.
“No, it has to be a French champagne,” the waiter replies. “Those are the only bottles that can withstand it. The others break.”
“So we couldn’t get the Trump blanc de blancs sabered?”
“No, sir. It’s a safety concern.”
Ally orders an Anchor Steam lager, Albisu opts for a cappuccino, and I request a crystal spoonful of Furmint’s 2009 Royal Tokaji, a sweet Hungarian varietal, $20 for an ounce.
“I was expecting the hotel to be more gaudy,” says Albisu. “This is more understated than what I expected — even with the beautiful chandeliers with the aggressive crystal quality. Dare I say I’m impressed?”
“I was expecting a little more opulence than this,” Ally agrees. “It’s tasteful. It feels warm and inviting.”
Another waiter arrives bearing a crystal spoon on a tray and a bottle.
“You get two pours,” he says. “We want you to get your money’s worth.”
Small bits of wax that the waiter missed falling from the neck of the bottle float in the miniature amber puddle. I feel a little silly picking up the spoon, a crystalized version of a dumpling spoon, and even sillier sipping from it. I’m no oenophile, but I’ve never heard of tasting from a spoon for what seem to me obvious reasons — you can’t really smell the stuff, and so the taste comes as a bit of a surprise.
The wine is sweet and cloying. I dutifully down the second pour. I’m glad I hadn’t ordered a $325 bottle of the stuff and sort of wish I had ordered a full glass of, say, a 2015 Trump Chardonnay ($12).
“Did you like it?” the server asks.
“Mmm,” I reply, trying to hide my poor wine choice with a smile. He bows and departs, leaving us to peruse the food menu. This is the product of David Burke, a last-minute replacement for D.C. chef-restaurateur José Andrés and celeb chef Geoffrey Zakarian, both of whom were set to open restaurants in the hotel but both backed out after in the wake of the GOP candidate’s inflammatory remarks about Mexicans. Characteristically, Trump is suing both men; they are countersuing.
Burke is no slouch in the food industry: He owns a series of restaurants in New York City, Las Vegas, and Chicago and is known for playful presentations and unexpected flavor combinations, such as salmon seasoned with pastrami spices. While he clearly had limited time to put together a menu, what we see here shows some promise.
“‘Hipster fries’ with beef jerky on them sounds good,” says Albisu.
Price tag: $16. We order them anyway and a few other shareable appetizers.
Yet another waiter arrives with glasses of water. One of the glasses has ice; the other does not. He places them in front of Albisu and me. Ally, for some reason, is not served. A moment later, our original waiter returns with two varieties of nuts to snack on, and we request another water.
“Of course,” he says, and disappears.
I sample the corn nuts he brought.
“Are these truffled?” I ask.
Albisu and Ally don’t believe me, but each try the white dusted snacks. They are indeed truffled corn nuts. As far as we are aware, it’s a high-low flavor combination no chef in his or her right mind has ever foisted upon their diners, and with good reason. They’re awful, and instead of mushroom flavoring, there's a lingering artificial aftertaste.
A couple on the powder blue couch next to us orders a bottle of Trump Meritage red wine. They carefully study the label when the waiter brings it, toast with a loud clacking of glasses, and smile broadly as they sip. Our food arrives, including crab-stuffed tater tots, octopus — both grilled and in a tiradito-style crudo — and the hipster fries, an indelicately tossed mishmash of limp potatoes, stringy bits of jerky, grilled shishito peppers, and partially melted parmesan cheese. We pull them apart tentatively, looking around for a condiment to dip them in. Not a Heinz bottle in sight, and neither is our waiter.
The crab tots are good, a play on the crab cakes for which the Chesapeake Bay region is renowned. Unfortunately, there are only nine of them. The octopus, which is served with a creamy swipe of pureed avocado, is met with murmurs of appreciation. It’s an unexpected dish done well.
I excuse myself to use the bathroom. I am not surprised to find it aglow with gold accents. The bars next to the toilet, the tissue paper holder, the soap dispenser, the faucets, the mirror frame, even the sensor on the urinals — all gold. Everything shines as if it was recently polished.
I return to the table in time to see yet another waiter deliver a glass of water for Ally. It’s been an hour since we sat down.
Our original waiter returns bearing a plate with a small silver tree with cheesecake lollipops for branches and a quenelle of princess pink bubblegum whipped cream. Everything is dusted with a snowfall of confectionary sugar.
“Try it,” the waiter urges. I take a bite of the whipped cream. It tastes like a piece of stale Bazooka Joe. I’m not sure of the intended effect.
As we each work through a cake pop, I note that we’ve encountered a variety of accents from our wait staff — from Eastern European to North African. I wonder aloud if Trump’s rhetoric and proposals have made being employed here problematic for them.
“People who work in the U.S., they don’t really have the luxury of paying attention to all of this stuff,” says Albisu after a bite of dessert. He puts down the unfinished pop on the rim of his saucer, where it remains. “They take this work because they think it’s going to advance their career and they can learn from it. Latinos in particular are used to forgetting about the politics, because it’s way worse where they come from,” says Albisu, himself the son of two immigrants, his father from Cuba and mother from Peru. “Corruption is everywhere. They always feel like working-class people are going to get screwed anyway, so they just get to work.”
Faiz, also the son of immigrants, both from Pakistan, has a more optimistic take. “While my father was getting his Masters, he worked in the cafeteria, because he got a burger every day he would work,” he says. “So for me, it’s amazing to be in this position where we can sit here and have these discussions. The reason he and my mother came to the States was to improve the life that they had and the life that their family would have. That’s reflected in a lot of the people that we’re working with.”
“Since your father spent some time in food service, was he excited when you decided to pursue a culinary career?” I ask.
“No, not at all. Expectations where always very high for me. I was supposed to be a doctor or an engineer.”
Albisu’s mother had hoped he would become a doctor or a lawyer, but she is proud of the path he ultimately took.
“I’ve had the pleasure of cooking at the White House, and FLOTUS has come to Del Campo,” Albisu says. “The amount of time, effort, and energy this administration has put into food on multiple levels has been huge — and they’ve allowed chefs to be heard. I think our children need better food; we need better kitchens in our schools; kids need access to breakfast. These are all very important issues.”
At this point we look up to see groups of two and three starting to trickle into the atrium. The music gets louder, and staff arrives to man the food and drink carts at the center of the room.
“Seeing the crowd here is actually strangely encouraging,” says Albisu. “Obviously everybody in here can’t be just conservatives, Republicans, or Trump supporters, right? It’s kind of cool. People are still coming here. After the election is all done, everybody needs to be able to go back to normal.”