06 May 2014

Haughty service spoiled dinner at Fiola Mare, DC

I love how Washington, DC gets attention as a city with a vibrant restaurant scene. It makes sense. The city has a very cosmopolitan and diverse population. And there are plenty of people on expense account who need to make a favorable impression on customers, clients, and colleagues over a memorable meal in a comfortable setting.

Even though I’m retired, I still try to keep up on the DC food scene. It is frustrating, however, to read about great new restaurants knowing that I won’t get much opportunity to try them. (And no expense account if/when I do get to try them.)

In late April I went to DC for a board meeting of Mazon, the anti-hunger advocacy organization. The first night I ate at Fiola Mare. I had yearned for an opportunity to eat there since I’d read that it opened earlier in 2014. I had eaten at Fiola DC, Fabio Trabocchi’s restaurant in Penn Quarter, in 2012 and loved it. (Click here for that Krik’s Picks blog post.) So I had high expectations for the fish and seafood iteration that’s Fiola Mare. IMG_0307

There is a lot to like about the restaurant. Start with the location. It’s on the Potomac waterfront in Georgetown. I arrived as the sun was setting on a beautiful Sunday spring evening. If it had been just a little warmer, I might have asked for a table on the outdoor patio with relaxing views of the river and Kennedy Center across the way. Inside, some of the tables are in an enclosed porch; those windows can open to let in the fresh air and murmur of the pedestrians strolling along the waterfront. (They’re probably looking wistfully at the diners in the beautiful restaurant.) But if views of the Potomac don’t interest you, you can choose a pleasant and comfortable table in the main dining room.

Then there’s the food. My meal was sublime. I started with burrata with baby artichokes and radishes dressed with a delicious basil pesto. The burrata was heavenly. It was rich and creamy, and each bite was delicately bathed with the pesto. For an entrée, I ordered pan roasted branzino. I’d had branzino a couple of times in Italy and as much as anything, I wanted to compare Fiola’s version to the fish I’d eaten in Italy. It compared very favorably, though the whole, oven roasted fish I had in Venice was better. (Maybe not even better, just more enjoyable, for reasons that I will now explain.)

There was just one thing that keeps me from raving about this dining experience, and that was the service. Even though it was a Sunday night, the restaurant was very busy. I’m sure my server was tired. He actually made it pretty clear that he was very busy. Maybe he thought it would be okay to neglect my little table for one. Or maybe he thought I was lucky that he was serving me at all. In any case, here’s what bugged me about his service:

  • I asked for a black napkin. (I didn’t want lint from the white napkin on my black dress slacks. The restaurant’s web site requires “casual elegant attire.”) He said he’d look for one. Never got back to me on that.
  • I had to ask for a glass of wine to be served with my entrée. (Timing of wine seems to be a problem. At the next table, different server, I heard the couple complain that their dinners were served before they got their bottle of wine.)
  • But the most annoying thing – I was savoring my burrata, only about half finished, when another server arrived with my entrée. “I’m not ready for it,” I said and sent it back to the kitchen. After I finished the burrata, the entrée was delivered to my table. It didn’t appear to have suffered from being held. When my primary server stopped at the table, I told him about the miscue from the kitchen. He did apologize. But the apology came with a pass-the-buck excuse that he hadn’t ‘fired’ the entrée.

Sorry, but a restaurant that’s trying to convey a high class, sophisticated vibe like Fiola Mare has to do a better job of pacing the meal without falling back on self-serving excuses.

So here’s my bottom line on Fiola Mare. I wouldn’t recommend it for a business dinner. While the location is beautiful, it’s a little inconvenient to get to, and I wouldn’t want to take a chance that a server’s mistake could get in the way of a successful meeting. And I probably wouldn’t choose to eat there on my own again. I would return to Fiola in Penn Quarter and I would like to try Fabio Trabocchi’s other DC restaurant, Casa Luca.

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