Six months into his tenure at Jardenea, it’s clear that Executive Chef Joe Dunbar is feeling right at home – and it shows in his cooking. Dunbar, a native of Alexandria, Virginia, earned initial accolades working in kitchens across South Florida under the tutelage of the late and legendary Chef Tom Pritchard (Salt Rock Grill), before opening his own place in the small coastal town of Port Orange, which he ran for several years. But Dunbar’s story and relationship with food goes back even further, to a childhood spent helping out in the kitchen of his grandparents’ restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg. That life-long affinity for making food accessible – and delicious – was apparent in what he served us at the unveiling of Jardenea’s new fall menu.
Before we go too far, a note on hotel restaurants. It’s easy for these establishments to slide into mediocrity, for several reasons: they have a regular, captive clientele who prefer the ease and comfort of what’s right in front of them as opposed to venturing out; they can charge a higher price point by virtue of being attached to a hotel; and in some of the more concerning cases, the business of catering events at the hotel is so much more lucrative that it becomes the manager’s (and the chef’s) focus. Several DC restaurants seem to be challenging those old notions directly – Kith and Kin, in the Intercontinental and A Rake’s Progress at The Line Hotel both continue to dazzle – but it’s always a risk. So I was happy to see that Jardenea, the restaurant at the Melrose Georgetown Hotel, is putting some thought into what they serve and how they think of food, generally.
The staff and team at Jardenea were incredibly knowledgeable and the service was top-notch. Each course on the menu was expertly paired with a cocktail or wine selection, and Steve Maguire – formerly of Science Club – walked us through the decisions and flavor profiles of each concoction alongside Chef Dunbar. A fall salad with cucumber carpaccio, blue cheese, and fall greens and nuts was accompanied by a light, slightly effervescent vodka punch.
An appetizer trio of kabocha squash gnocchi, prawns and chorizo, and seared Hudson Valley foie gras on a crostini were served with a surprisingly citrusy pumpkin spice martini. These sorts of creative pairings continued throughout.
For mains, diners got to choose between six entrees. Being the big chonker cat that I am, and recognizing the chef’s roots in Southern comfort food, I made sure to order the cornflakes-crusted fried chicken and waffles. Two massive strips of boneless chicken thighs were served with sweet potato waffles and Brussels sprouts perfectly cooked in jowl bacon and onions. A cognac and peppercorn maple syrup gave everything a kick, and probably shortened my life span further.
Fellow BYT columnist Ruben Gzirian order a New York strip that was cooked perfectly to medium rare. Looking around the table everyone seemed pretty happy with their salmon and scallop and tenderloin orders, but the fried chicken really stole the show. If you go there, get it.
The desserts were a bit more of a mixed bag. My pecan pie à la mode was phenomenal (oh lawd he comin’), but an attempt to push boundaries with a chocolate teardrop filled with raspberry…fell flat.
It looked too pretty to eat, and the flavor reminded me of a cherry filled bonbon, which remains a crime against humanity. Redemption came in the form of a s’mores bomb – a well-executed combination of confectionary and marshmallow custard.
The menu at Jardenea soars when it approaches something like elevated comfort food; that nostalgia in each dish is the through line that Chef Dunbar is able to thread expertly.