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Barton Seaver: The Country's Best?

Barton Seaver is rocketing to national stardom. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

Congratulations to Barton Seaver. In its November issue, Esquire Magazine will name him "chef of the year" and Blue Ridge, Seaver's farm-to-table restaurant in Glover Park, one of the best new restaurants in the country.

Seaver's magnetism is strong. In May, I profiled Seaver and his quest to redefine and simplify sustainability. "I'm not trying to save the fish," the chef, formerly of sustainable seafood restaurant Hook, told me. "I'm trying to save dinner."

But is Seaver really the country's best new chef? This award puts him in the same category as Dallas's Stephan Pyles, New York's Michael Psilakis (whom we will write about later this month) and San Francisco's Dominique Crenn. Esquire critic John Mariani calls him "a voice of reason at a time when priggish, competing factions – from vegans to slow-food zealots – deal more in polemics than real solutions." Among the "masterful creations" that Mariani praises are Seaver's "aged country ham, a perfect chicken potpie with hot rosemary-flecked biscuits, and sweet-potato fritters with honey mustard."

Local critics seem to disagree.

Our own Tom Sietsema gave Blue Ridge a half one-and-a-half stars out of four. "Count me among the disappointed diners," he wrote in his Aug. 16 review. The "house-fried potato chips served with a charred-onion dip [are] reminiscent of the stuff some of us baby boomers used to whip up using Lipton onion soup mix," he said. And that (in this case vegetable) pot pie? "Four small rosemary-buttermilk biscuits provide a top crust, a clever idea that gets erased by your first taste of the filling. It's a pale-yellow glue that is not quite solid, not quite liquid and definitely a waste of good vegetables."

Tom isn't the only one who was underwhelmed. "It's cool but is it good?" Washingtonian's Todd Kliman wondered in his initial take: "Seaver’s flavors are timid: The redeye gravy that comes with fried eggs and a biscuit had no soulful punch, while an appetizer of fingerling-potato halves stuffed with the same pimiento cheese was bland."

And the City Paper's Tim Carman was even less kind in a Sept. 30 write-up: "I’ve visited Blue Ridge on three occasions now, and every time, the kitchen has screwed up one preparation or another. Once it was the bluefish, grilled into an almost moisture-less block and served with an overly bitter mint-pecan pesto (which has since been ditched). Another time it was an heirloom tomato salad, served with bitter frisée and funk-forward smoked-cheddar croutons, the entirety of which was salted as if the kitchen were trying to preserve the thing… I expect more..."

Mariani has been criticized for his approach to restaurant reviewing. One Chicago chef accused him of making lists of demands including a reservation at his favorite hotel and a comped meal. Mariani calls the charges "patently false" and "verging on libelous." (This Los Angeles Times article outlines the charges and Mariani and Esquire's responses.)

In an interview, Mariani told me that he visited Blue Ridge once for lunch with several guests. Seaver knew he was there and sent out what Mariani ordered as well as dishes he thought best represented what he was doing. He says Esquire did (and has always) paid for the food he ate.

Like me, Mariani was impressed by Seaver's vision and sensible approach to sustainability. "I love that he says restaurants can only serve so many people and to change the way we eat, we have to start at Wal-Mart and A&P," Mariani said.

"As for the restaurant itself. I liked very much what I ate. It seemed a reflection of what he was doing. There was a lot of emphasis on vegetables but not on being a vegetarian. The chicken and pork was cooked very well. That southern style of cooking is not easy to find, even in your neck of the woods. They were of supremely good ingredients."

Do Seaver and Blue Ridge deserve such accolades? What do you think of the man, his mission and the food?

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  October 1, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Chefs  | Tags: Barton Seaver, Jane Black  
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I *want* to like Seaver's food and rarely agree with Sietsema but in this case the critic is right. It was as if he reviewed the exact meal that I had at Blue Ridge, as well. Doesn't matter though. Chef is cute and has good PR. May he, the owners and their diners enjoy the spotlight.

Posted by: dearshakti | October 1, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

My wife and I ate dinner at Blue Ridge in late August and we were disappointed with the preparation of the food. While the chefs at Blue Ridge use excellent ingredients, the execution of each dish is embarrassingly amateurish - under-seasoned and over-cooked. The blandness was so pervasive that I can only conclude it was a deliberate strategy in order to let the locally sourced ingredients shine. Or, maybe it was a correction to a period of over-seasoning others complained about elsewhere. On a positive note: the wine list was nice. One a less positive note: I sent an e-mail to Blue Ridge's owners, but never heard back from them. Poor form. Which leaves me to wonder, what is the agenda of the Esquire critic?

Posted by: lsteahly | October 1, 2009 1:48 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Black, you need grammar lessons! The Post should be ashamed!

Posted by: maretini5 | October 1, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

He may have country's best publicist. I still like Saint Ex, but he has been long gone from there. Didn't think much of Hook though.

Posted by: johnnoble46 | October 1, 2009 4:17 PM | Report abuse

John Mariani emailed me this morning and said he found my post "fair-minded overall" but asked me to post this comment on his behalf:

In her blog about Barton Seaver, Jane Black references a four-year-old accusation by a “Chicago chef” who said in print I had made outrageous demands of him before going to his restaurant. The chef in question (whom I never even wrote a word about) was Homaro Cantu of Moto, and he made his accusation to the Chicago Sun-Times. When contacted for comment the next day by the NY Post, t Mr. Cantu retracted his statements, writing, “I wanted to respond directly to the recent reports that have come out regarding respected journalist, John Mariani, and his visit to Moto in Chicago. Mr. Mariani dined at Moto on March 2nd 2004 and as a young chef I was excited to have such a prominent journalist take interest in my food. As with any guest, we take into account special requests and Mr. Mariani’s were communicated to me via fax by our former public relations firm. I never received any direct requests from Mr. Mariani himself. Having said that I regret any of my earlier statements that may have brought Mr. Mariani’s character or journalistic integrity into question.” The Chicago Sun-Times neglected to print that retraction; neither has the Washington Post, so this libel lives on. I just wanted to set the record straight.

Posted by: Jane Black | October 2, 2009 11:00 AM | Report abuse

I am not sure who hes sleeping with, but it must be Mariani himself. This guy is not a cook, a chef nor does he care about substainability. He jumped on a band waggon and went for a ride. He has horrible reviews because he can not cook! Celebrity chef? What! Hook was never ranked that well and Blue Ridge will sink with negative responses to food and service. Any respectable chef would control both aspects and deliver a consistent product. The local reviewers finally called him out! What training does this guy have anyway? He is an embarrasement to the trade and due to modern day marketing some people are tricked into actually paying hard earned money for this guys amatuer crap. Save your money and stay at home the next time you have any urge to hit Blue Ridge. Perhaps its time to ake a step back and get some training marketing tool.

Posted by: kdavey | October 8, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

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