10/11/2012 02:48:00 PM

DC Survey: Service Secrets From the Highly Ranked Plume

Plume's elegant dining room
Plume, the elegant, Thomas Jefferson-inspired New American a few blocks from the White House, earned No. 2 Decor and Service ratings, second only to the Inn at Little Washington. Since the Inn is nearly an hour away in the Virginia coutryside, Plume ranks as the top place in town to consider when the setting and the pampering really matter.


Before dinner service, the black-suit clad captains and their assistants, along with the sommelier, gather by the marble service table in the center of the exquisite period dining room. The maitre d' hotel, Boundieng Sirimoungkhoun (Boun for Short) assigns the tables to the captains, guest by guest, mentioning their preferences, special requests (allergy) and the kind of occasion it will be (birthday, gourmet package). He notes that one patron will be celebrating an anniversary - of dating - and that the check should be presented to her. During the week, a high proportion of the guests are frequent patrons. The staff is observant and takes notes about the guests. They are very discreet, noting in the profiles that some people like to be addressed by name, other do not want to be acknowledged. This is DC, after all.

Boun reminds the staff about pouring wine and water, placing purse stools, escorting guests to the washroom, and keeping everything “nice and clean.” “Never go back to the kitchen empty handed,” he tells them.

The chef appears. Since the tasting menu changes twice a week, he reviews all the dishes on the new menu. He’s concise but very descriptive, often mentioning the local sources of the ingredients.  There will be a salad using greens from the Path Valley (in Pennsylvania). He asks the staff to tell him what arugula tastes like. Then he explains how the local cheese in the salad (like a blue camembert) and the spicy vinegar will work together with the greens. After describing the mouthwatering dessert, he hurries back to the kitchen. It’s going to be a busy night, with several private dinners, besides the main dining room.

Michael Scaffidi, the wine director/sommelier pours half glasses of one of the wines that will be recommended for the lamb, for the team to taste. He tells them about the grapes and the vineyards. He explains that they should be able to describe the wine in 30 seconds in a way that makes guests “feel great about ordering it.” He asks different members of the staff to try, helping them find short descriptive words, like “plums, cherries, spicy”, “full-bodied." It's very low-key and interactive, and comfortable. At the end of the meeting, he asks how many glasses of Madeira will be sold that night. “Fifteen” ventures one staffer.

The Jefferson has a legendary Madeira collection (nearly 50 vintages) including a 1780 vintage ($500/glass). It offers flights like the 150 year selection of a 1988, 1957 and 1908 vintages, as well as single glasses.

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