The word itself conjures mythological nymphs, allure and seduction, and mystical calls to the sea. It is, of course, the name of a new DC restaurant that opened in late April: Siren by Robert Wiedmaier. Wiedmaier is joined in this newest venture by partners Brian McBride and John Critchley. And they definitely are a trio, with each having a key role in the operation. Brian McBride actually came up with the name, Wiedmaier says. “This is a seafood restaurant, and seafood is feminine, so we needed a name that would reflect that.” McBride adds, “we thought about mermaids and the ‘siren song’ reference from the Eric Clapton song. Siren is kinda hot and kinda fun, just what we want the restaurant to be.”

What makes this trio work?
All three have worked in chef-hotels, including Kimpton, the Ritz, The Park Hyatt, and The Four Seasons. The setting for Siren is the boutique hotel, The Darcy, on Rhode Island Ave. “Fifty years ago, most hotels had top chefs,” Wiedmaier says. “For a time, we got away from that, and now more and more boutique hotels are coming back to the idea of a chef-hotel because it works for both parties.”
The name Robert Wiedmaier needs no introduction, of course, but let’s have a quick review anyway! Born in Germany to a Belgian father and California mother, he was steeped from the beginning in fresh food from local German and Belgian markets, along with hunting and fishing in local fields and waterways. Once he decided on a culinary career, he stayed with it, and even today, cannot believe his success. “I barely got out of high school,” he jokes. “I never thought as a pot washer that one day I would employ 700 people!” But he does, at restaurants such as Mussel Bar & Grille (in Arlington, Bethesda, and Baltimore), Wildwood Kitchen, Villain & Saint, and Lock 72 Kitchen & Bar.

Treating staff like family
Marcel’s, named for Wiedmaier’s older son, opened in 1999 and consistently wins top awards and ratings for fine DC dining. Brasserie Beck is named for younger son Beck, a 14-year-old soccer player. Marcel is 18 and off to NYU to study jazz. In fact, he often plays jazz at Marcel’s and now, on weekends, at Siren. Dad is very proud of both and says he learned to be a better chef and restaurateur because of his sons and his wife (“my rock”) Polly. “I’d been a tough guy for years,” he says, “yelling at young cooks for things like too much salt, or overcooking, or slicing something wrong.”
Once his sons came along, he says he realized that he had to become a coach and parent to his staff. “These are someone’s children, too, and they need nurturing and a positive environment just like my own kids do.” He shares this as a piece of advice to others in the business. “You have to be mature in how you treat your staff.” He notes that this is especially true when starting a new restaurant. “When everything is new, you are painting a picture of how you want it to be. Everyone has to understand the culture and how we want things done.” With a three-minute deadline 100 times a day for every dish, “I’m delighted if they get it 98 percent right!” he exclaims.

From the ground up
Wiedmaier’s co-visionary in the creation of Siren is Brian McBride, chef and RW Restaurant Group partner. “My involvement was at the ground level,” he says. “I designed the restaurant, worked with various purveyors to get the look we wanted, did the hiring, and now here we are!” McBride gained his knowledge about restaurants — and seafood in particular — from working around the world. “In Southeast Asia, seafood was king, and I was able to see so many styles and ways to prep food.” He collected knowledge by watching and working with chefs in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other Asian capitals. ‘You could work for 40 years and still not learn all the techniques to cook seafood!” he says.
In London, McBride learned traditional French cuisine. That, combined with Asian fusion cooking, defined the cooking style he brought to the Melrose, the signature restaurant at the Park Hyatt, where, for 20 years, he was executive chef. He launched Blue Duck Tavern in 2006 and, in 2011, joined the RW Restaurant Group with his long-time friend Robert Wiedmaier. McBride sees Siren as a “fun place on the high end. Ingredients are not cheap. Good fish is expensive. Great oysters are expensive. You can have caviar and champagne for dessert here if that’s what you want!” In fact, one of the offerings is a caviar tasting plate with caviar cookies — black & white, macaron, and lindzer.

And Critchley makes three
The two chef-partners hired their third Siren teammate in John Critchley. “John is the glue,” Wiedmaier exclaims. “He is a culinary delight. Certain people just get it. John just gets it!” Wiedmaier met Critchley in Miami, where Critchley worked for Kimpton. “John is a natural fit,” Wiedmaier says. “He comes from a school of thinking and creativity where you can eat off the floor!”
Critchley grew up on seafood on Boston’s south shore, eating it, fishing for it, and cooking it. “I’ve been in kitchens since I was 13,” he says. And, over his years, he has developed a healthy respect for cooking from the sea. In Miami, “I had 40 species of fish on the menu.” Instead of flying in salmon and halibut from the north, he used fish from nearby Florida waters in order to source locally. His hope is to procure extremely fresh seafood from around the world from well-managed areas so diners can continue to have it on the menu. “Seafood is difficult to manage,” he notes. “It’s the only wild protein on any menu. That’s what gives it the distinct flavor. When there’s wind and rain — and no fishing — for a week, we have to turn to other sources. I’m happy being in a kitchen where we are focusing 100 percent on seasonal, fresh sourcing of seafood.”
The menu item Critchley cites as his favorite? Well, there’s not just one. “I love serving raw fish,” he says. “Maybe the fluke Tiradito (a raw fish dish like ceviche, heavily influenced by Japanese sashimi.) Or maybe a favorite is the Japanese sea urchin with blue crab custard or the big eye tuna served with wakame seaweed.
The Siren kitchen is small and nimble so Critchley can create whatever seafood windfalls happen to be delivered that day. And they will continue to fine-tune each and every day. When Wiedmaier thought the Siren crab cake wasn’t quite “grooving,” he asked for new thinking, and voila, a better crab cake with a new twist was created the very next day. Critchley adds, “It’s great to be able to pull from three brains. If we can think of it, I can make it!” Critchley sees cooking as art. “The best part of being a chef or an artist is that you can change your mind! You listen to your customers and go in different directions if it’s not going where you think it should.”

Three is definitely not a crowd
Critchley sums up the threesome very well. “The reason Brian and Robert and I get along is that after 25 or more years, we each have the same drive we had going into this.” Their shared goal is to be the best seafood restaurant in the DC area, with great service, and the freshest product so people remember the experience. “It will take time,” Wiedmaier says. “We will have hiccups. But the thoughtfulness behind the cuisine is there. We share the goal of creating a truly unique seafood celebration for our guests.”
And so far, this trio of restaurant experts is off to a very good start. And perhaps — just perhaps — if you enter the place and use your imagination, you might just hear that siren song…a little bit mysterious, alluring, and mythical, as well.

About the Author

LISA KEATHLEY is the managing editor of Foodservice Monthly.

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