D.C. Writers And Chefs Collaborate On New Marriott Menu

Great expectations surround the Marriott Marquis Washington, D.C., a $520 million project poised to open in the first week of May. This newest outpost of the hospitality empire will serve as the hotel headquarters of the Washington Convention Center but may also, perhaps more importantly, become a landmark for the revitalization of the adjacent Shaw neighborhood. "We want the new Marriott Marquis D.C. to do in Shaw what the New York Marquis did in Times Square. We want it to be a significant chapter in the neighborhood's history," says Joseph Danza, food and beverage manager of the Marquis Washington, D.C. These high expectations project heavily onto the new hotel's Americana-inspired dining venues, among which Anthem will stand out as the flagship restaurant.

The opening of the new location will occur in tandem with the hotel's newest international initiative, named "Travel Brilliantly." As part of this program, guests are encouraged to share their ideas about what they would like to see during their stay at a Marriott location, and the Marriot team will take these into consideration and may even implement them. To showcase this concept, the culinary team at Corporate Headquarters Marriott International in D.C. suburb Bethesda, Maryland, recently opened its test kitchen to a small group of food writers for a menu development event. Journalists worked together with Vice President Culinary and Corporate Chef Brad Nelson and newly appointed Marriott Marquis Washington, D.C. Executive Chef Matthew Morrison to develop the Anthem restaurant menu by evaluating potential menu items and offering their professional opinions about individual dishes.

But it wasn't all about slappin' rockfish on the grill and garnishing plates with micro-greens. While the practical portion of the event offered hands-on, chef-side experience in the kitchen, attendees also delved into the conceptual side of menu development. Will the cuisine at Anthem be tailored to local, national or international tastes? Will the kitchen source locally or will it boast rare imported items? Will the menu embrace recent culinary trends or defy them? Each writer was paired up with a chef to work on a single dish and each dish seemed to exemplify one such conceptual issue.

The kitchen acknowledged a new culinary trend by incorporating kale chips into the mix. The kitchen experimented with three flavors of the crunchy-yet-healthy snack that has been popping up on menus all over the country and played with the idea of serving these as a sampler trio. The flavors included a Caesar and an Asian-inspired seasoning (possibly a nod to the dish's Asian cousin, the nori or seaweed chip).

Classics were re-imagined as one chef-writer team attempted to spruce up the somewhat outdated pairing of beets and goat cheese. Fresh apples took the place of toasted walnuts and arugula in a zesty salad of cubed beet and apple with irregular crumbles of snow-white chèvre sprinkled over the top. Over on another plate, a rainbow of thinly sliced heirloom beets, resembling colorful fish scales, adorned a slice of toast rubbed with garlic and smeared with goat cheese. The garlic contributed a spicy, almost bitter zing that added a nice depth of flavor, but overpowered the subtle, earthy sweetness of the star vegetable.

Marriott restaurants have come to perfect a handful of the chain's signature dishes, including the Hot Fudge Cake and the triple-decker hamburger named the Mighty Mo. These nostalgic company favorites are a nod to the brand's humble beginnings as an A&W root beer stand and a nine-stool restaurant called The Hot Shoppe. While taking care to honor these timeless recipes (which date back to the 1920s), Chef Nelson also makes a point to allow some versatility in the Anthem menu. This decision was best showcased with a dish that combines a pan-seared local fish, a risotto and pickled vegetables from the DuPont Circle FRESHFARM farmers' markets. All three key elements of the dish will rotate seasonally–the risotto may be dressed with corn and bacon in the summer, squash in the fall, mushrooms in the winter. Likewise the breed of fish will depend on what's live 'n kickin' that month and the veggies will be picked according to what looks good at the market that weekend. Inviting the press to help develop this dish also allowed Nelson to highlight another major agendum of the Marriott: to source as much as possible locally at each of the company's hotel restaurants.

Portion size and plating style were explored through experimentation with the lobster pot pie, a classic dish that oozes decadence. The ratio of lobster to veggies was adjusted, as was the relative thickness of the crust when both a shareable 7-inch and individual 5-inch pie were prepared in the test kitchen. Scraps of dough were shaped into decorative elements that adorned the crust, a style the chefs described as "old-school" and "traditional." More modern adaptations of the dish typically leave these off.  

The final item up for development was one that has induced jaded eye rolls from quite a few restaurant critics lately. Unless executed perfectly, chicken and waffles ends up a gimmicky mess of soggy cake and oily batter. It's an overplayed tune in desperate need of a remix. The test kitchen chefs flipped the switch by turning the dish into a sandwich. This version will be easier to eat and allow more room for creative touches, such as greasing the waffle iron with bacon fat or adding maple-glazed bacon to give the dish a traditional American breakfast feel. The recipe for the chicken will be an adaptation of the original recipe for Pappy Parker's Fried Chicken, which was originally sold at The Hot Shoppes. By rethinking chicken and waffles as a sandwich, a trend on its way out is brought back for those who may have missed it the first time around.  

The Anthem menu co-creation activity provided a unique opportunity for food writers and chefs to mingle and share ideas about trends in the culinary world we share. A refreshing break from reviewing menus, it was intriguing to see the effort that goes into developing one and to actively take part in that creative process. I'm looking forward to tasting the product of our combined effort when Anthem opens in May.  

Lili Kocsis is a self-proclaimed gastronome. She graduated from Harvard University in 2011 with a BA in linguistics. She dedicates her spare time to purposeful travel, food photography, and writing about regional cuisine under the penname MyAmusedBouche.