The Future of BLT Steak DC?

June 4, 2012

The recent departure of Chef Victor Albisu appears to have left a huge creative void at the DC restaurant and lots of confusion as to what lies ahead, according to a BLT Steak insider who spoke to Forking DC on the condition of anonymity.  According to the former employee, Albisu left because he was asked to sign an agreement stipulating that all recipes he created for BLT were the exclusively property of BLT.  Such an agreement, while not necessarily uncommon, is usually negotiated before a chef comes on board, not after he’s been in the kitchen for five years and served as executive chef for the last two. The insider noted the diminished confidence in the restaurant and its corporate management that resulted from the way thing “went down” with Albisu and led to the departures of the sous and pastry chefs and many front-of-the-house staff members within two months of Albisu’s departure.

A spokesperson for BLT’s parent company,  ESquared Hospitality, denied the former employee’s statements, stating that this was not the first time Albisu was asked to sign an agreement, BLT’s failure to obtain his signature earlier was an oversight, and the agreement — which protected recipes used throughout the BLT Steak family of restaurants — excluded any recipes Albisu created himself.  Albisu, through his publicist, declined to comment on this story or Esquared’s statements.

While there appear to be conflicting stories, the BLT Steak restaurant group has dealt with a similar issue during its prolonged and unsuccessful legal battle with Laurent Tourondel, the group’s partner and creative talent.  BLT tried to claim Tourondel’s recipes were BLT’s property after the chef parted ways with the restaurant in 2010.

According to the Washingtonian’s 100 Best Restaurants 2012, Albisu “continually ups the culinary ante” at BLT.  It was Chef Albisu’s talent that appeared to keep BLT on many food critics’ lists of top DC restaurants even after the split with Tourondel.  Whether it was through his political burger board, competing in a local cooking competitions with other notable chefs, or holding cooking classes, Chef Albisu seemed to constantly promote BLT Steak.

The restaurant, now forced to train a whole new staff under the leadership of a new General Manager and new executive Chef Jon Mathieson, also appears to be facing criticism and possibly diminishing loyalty from regular patrons as well.  According to the insider, regular patrons are disappointed not only with the departure of Albisu, but also with other changes that are perceived as hurting BLT’s status as a power restaurant, just blocks from the White House, where lobbyists, businessmen, and politicians regularly dine. For example, in the past year, BLT has relaxed the dress code and started offering a 5 for $5 happy hour menu, thereby appealing to a broader clientele.

Maybe it’s too early for a final verdict on the new executive chef, whose previous tenures as executive chef at several area restaurants ended when the restaurants went out of business. Yet, the former employee points to recent kitchen woes as an indicator of where things are headed. For example, there have been one too many problems executing the regular menu items at the quality and consistency one would expect from a fine dining establishment. On several occasions, the restaurant has also run out of popular items on the menu.

While it seems unlikely that BLT will suffer the same fate as its recently defunct sister restaurant, Casa Nonna, only time will tell what BLT’s future holds. Will the new kitchen staff continually “up the culinary ante” or will they simply stick to the BLT-corporate cookbook?  I hope for everyone’s sake that good times are ahead for BLT.  I used to frequent the restaurant not only because of its convenient location, but also because I could always find some of my favorite things there — a comfortable, jostle-free seat at the bar, an excellent dirty martini, a stellar popover, and the best bacon appetizer known to man.  It just doesn’t seem the same anymore.


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3 Responses to The Future of BLT Steak DC?

  1. Jeff on June 7, 2012 at 12:10 am

    Youre absolutely right! It’s just not the same!
    As a former employee, one of many as you know, I’d like to confirm EVERY single point you’ve raised in this post.
    Chef Albisu was the heart and soul of that establishment. His passion for food was contagious and we each got to learn from him, be it a spice, an ingredient, a technique. He made US care about the food and the service and the “whole BLT experience” .
    With his departure, things went south very quickly. Jon Mathieson gave the impression he didn’t care and within a matter of a few days said as much. “I don’t really care….” he has said on more than one occasion. Let’s be realistic. You’d think as a new Chef of an already awesome restaurant the first thing you’d want to do would be to cook. Especially since the Blackboard at BLT gives you a blank canvas for your creativity. Why then, was Chef Albisu’s “smoked ribeye & rosemary/bacon chimichurri” on the Blackboard from Feb until recently? It may even still be on…..months after Mathieson took over. Mind you, the Blackboard at BLT would change once a WEEK in the time of Chef Albisu.
    The Corporate Chef created the other Blackboard dish which Mathieson ran for another month and was on the verge of tears when the actual creator ( Cliff Crooks) decided to make it a dish standard to all BLTs. This meant Mathieson finally had to cook! So what was his solution? Take Crook’s halibut and garnish it with the garnish from the soup of the day. Are you listening Esquared? Your pride and joy superstar Chef couldn’t even care enough to create an entree!!
    What he does care about is going to McFadden’s Bar every night. Drinking and drooling over girls half his age. How do I know? Because he didnt keep it a secret!
    Then there’s the unavailability of popular items. Again true. Filet Mignon & Caesar salad are often unavailable. Word was that it was to keep food cost low. The GM and Mathieson seem to be in on this together. I honestly don’t think they let Esquared in on this little system they have going on between them.
    So, yes Miss Vivi, you are correct! It’s just not the same!!

  2. ESquared on June 7, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    The team at ESquared Hospitality is very disappointed that a post would be written with so little regard for factual accuracy or truthful reporting. The entire team at BLT Steak DC works very hard to produce an exceptional experience and would like to clarify several inaccuracies and untruthful reports made in this piece.

    1. There have been no changes or efforts to “appeal to a broader clientele” as has been written. The dress code has not changed at all and the 5 @ 5 menus have been in place for 3.5 years as a well-loved component of our menus. The claim that the restaurant has changed positioning strategies was made without attention to fact or discussion with our company.

    2. The “reporting” of past suits between BLT Steak and former partner Laurent Tourondel are fabricated and written without research or respect for truthful reporting. Our suits have not been “unsuccessful” or “prolonged” and your write-up regarding the background of the suit demonstrate absolutely no knowledge or insight into its realities.

    3. As has been consistent with the entire blog post, the write-up surrounding the team at BLT Steak DC is contrived. The restaurant is not “forced” to train a new staff; the restaurant is thrilled and excited about the new staff, who have been brought on to elevate BLT Steak’s service levels and have been doing an excellent job of accomplishing this goal. As was reported by Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post, Chef Mathieson was brought on at BLT Steak to return the restaurant to its roots of creative French fare, and move away from the Latin influences which the previous chef had brought into the restaurant; a task he is implementing excellently with great praise by our diners.

    4. While all restaurants go though a transitional stage when making great changes, there is no accuracy to the statement that the restaurant has “run out of popular items on the menu.”

    If committed to sharing information about food and restaurants in DC, it would be hoped that the topic would be approached with a higher level of journalistic integrity. We believe that it is important for readers to understand the facts behind our restaurant.

    The ESquared Hospitality Team

    • Ellinida DC on June 7, 2012 at 7:56 pm

      Thanks for the feedback.

      Unless you have a press release stating otherwise, I do not believe that 5 @ 5 has been around for 3.5 years at the DC location. However, due to an oversight, I was off by about 6 months. According to my initial research, the 5 @ 5 began roughly 18 months ago. Is that incorrect?

      One other point – I should not have spoken of the legal battle as if it had concluded. The legal battle is ongoing.

      If I misstated any supposed facts, it was unintentional. Otherwise, this post contains many opinions — my own and that of former BLT Steak employees. Now, your opinion is reflected here too because all opinions are welcome. I never represented I was a journalist but thanks for thinking I was.

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