Right from the start, you know something’s off at Policy. Standing in the luridly lit stairwell, a sickly yellow gleam gives everyone the look of a mental patient. Not even the most nubile twenty-year-old looks good in light like this. It doesn’t get much better inside. The whole place is lit like a lighting designer who hates his actors. I was originally going there to write it up for my usual We Love Drinks but, any cocktail menu that has a drink mixing my beloved espresso vodka with Red Bull is off my list. But the food menu seemed at least potentially interesting.
However, I had reservations about Policy the first night I walked by and saw they had valet parking. At 14th and T, I really wonder. What does that say? Your clientele is too scared to park their own cars? What are they doing in the neighborhood anyway?
After you get past the mental hospital stairwell, the dining room greets you with a look rather like the Diner From Hell. Ceiling tiles seem to drip blood all night. Awful lighting in your booth gives you a migraine. Bad club “hits” from a decade past pound away. Contrast the forced clever black-and-red motif here with the crazy kitsch black-and-red motif at Jimmy Valentine’s, and it doesn’t take Dante to tell you where the Devil would rather hang out.
Ok, I keep getting distracted, because all these things are actually not the worst part about a night at Policy. It’s the overpriced mediocre food. Another bad sign is when your server explains to you the “concept of small plates” because “not everyone gets it.” Um, right. 14th and T again, remember? We’ve got Cork and Bar Pilar already. Or is this explanation for the people who want the valet parking?
Right, distraction. Sorry. Here we go. We tried six dishes at Policy. Two were good. Four were disappointing. The Madras Curry Lamb Sliders may have had curry in them, but I wouldn’t have known if it wasn’t in the title. The three little sliders for $13.95 were juicy, sure, but had no flavor at all. For lamb, that’s… odd.
The Soft Shell Crab had a great tempura job, but again, was actually lacking in flavor. It also seemed to be all leg.
As for the Crispy Veal Sweetbreads - well, sweetbreads being one of my favorite things, I finished the plate, but again, there was no flavor to the breading. The artichoke garnish was possibly the worst thing I’ve tasted ever. Pickled or marinated within an inch of its life. Honestly, I gagged.
We sought refuge in a simple plate of Organic Mixed Greens, but it was sadly swimming in balsamic, totally overdressed. Supposedly there was blue cheese and strawberries in there. Needles in a haystack.
Finally we hit something with the side of Grilled Asparagus. So good it made me sad compared with the other dishes – perfect, crisp, well-seasoned. Same for the Bread Pudding dessert – dense yet moist, pretty delectable with candied apricots. “These are actually good! What’s going on here?” I protest to my friend. But he’s beyond giving it a second chance, having just waited in an interminable line for one of two unisex bathrooms. Do we dare hit the upstairs lounge with bottle service and the bad oldies house music? “We’re not going up there,” my friend says definitively after a reconnaissance mission. “Check!”
Sigh. Hit-or-miss at these prices doesn’t inspire confidence. And after this dinner, we needed a second dinner. Contrast unfavorably with the small plates at Cork or Vinoteca or Bar Pilar…
One thing I will say, we had an excellent server who took our comments back to the kitchen. So perhaps openness to improvement is a good sign. But right now, all I see is valet park and gouge wallet. The future of the 14th Street Corridor? God, I hope not.
Policy Restaurant is located at 1904 14th St. NW. Closest Metro stop: U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo (Green line). For more information, call (202) 387-7654.