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For a while, it looked as if the French restaurant were dead. Not French food—which will never go out of fashion—but the French restaurant, that proud and sometimes stuffy establishment that didn’t so much serve a meal as uphold the exacting standards of Cuisine.
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, dining out in Washington more often than not meant dining French. Even ten years ago, The Washingtonian’s 100 Best list was rife with French names—La Colline, La Miche, Jean-Michel, Le Gaulois, La Ferme, Provence, La Bergerie, La Chaumière. Today most of those places are gone or have been eclipsed—casualties of a dining culture that has gone from formal to casual, from set menus to weekly and even daily compositions, from chamber music to iPod rotations.
But French cooking in this area has never been more alive, even if its most passionate practitioners have bent, twisted, and sublimated its principles. At Washington’s best restaurant, Citronelle, the food is subject to so many other influences that you might not recognize its Gallic underpinnings.
Palena is widely thought of as an Italian restaurant—its name refers to a city in Abruzzo—but the precision and intricacy of Frank Ruta’s cooking are indisputably French. CityZen is not nominally a French restaurant, but the cooking will sooner transport you to Paris than will a day trip to one of the region’s French country inns. Power players flock to BLT Steak for the monumental cuts of beef, but the best things about Laurent Tourondel’s New York import are two French touches: an oversize Gruyère popover and a small jar of astonishingly rich pâté.
Restaurant Eve is one of the area’s most ambitious and creative restaurants, with a tasting room that pulls in influences from around the globe, but it’s not for nothing that it calls its main dining room a bistro. In an era when our ardor for going out to restaurants seems to be surpassed only by a disdain for frills and formalities, what could be more appealing than a bistro, with its implicit promise of rootedness and simplicity?
Bistros popped up with such frequency this year that it looked as though a takeover were under way. Michel Richard opened Central, and Robert Wiedmaier opened Brasserie Beck—cheaper alternatives to their fine-dining restaurants, Citronelle and Marcel’s. The Willard brought back Antoine Westermann and his three Michelin stars and opened Café du Parc. Eric Ripert—awarded three Michelin stars for his Manhattan seafood palace, Le Bernardin—opened Westend Bistro.
Dupont Circle’s Montsouris, the steak-frites sister of Montmartre in DC’s Eastern Market neighborhood, finally found its groove. So did the quietly ambitious Bastille in Old Town Alexandria. The exorbitant Gerard’s Place closed and reopened as a bistro, hoping to ride along on the trend. (So far, not so good.)
But you don’t have to eat in a bistro to appreciate the bistroization of the area’s dining scene—menus now are replete with oysters on the half shell, frisée salads, tartares, hanger steaks, pâtés and terrines, cheese plates, and Rhône reds. Charcuterie is as common as Caesar salad, and some restaurants, such as Proof, have gone so far as to install a meat-slicing station near the wine cellar, with some chefs seizing upon the trend as a way of demonstrating their machismo. Most, however, are giddy at showing their mastery of form. Vermilion chef Anthony Chittum is known for his pastas, but his charcuterie board—evincing an old-fashioned love for the earthy arts of curing and casing—will persuade you he’s a Frenchman at heart.
Like all trends, this one undoubtedly has a shelf life. For now, we’ll raise a glass of Rhône red, enjoy a cold oyster, spear a slice of garlicky sausage, and say: Vive le bistro!
1 Citronelle ★★★★
Latham Hotel, 300 M St., NW | 202-625-2150
Cuisine: The area’s finest—a culinary tour de force from one of the world’s great chefs, Michel Richard, that stitches together a patchwork of influences—French country and classical, Asian, American, junk food, even pop art—into a seamless whole that revels in its singularity and sense of fun yet still manages to wow you with the intensity and depth of its flavors.
Mood: The open kitchen is the centerpiece of this retreat, a glowing, gleaming stage that lets you know that whoever else happens to be in the room—dignitaries, VIPs, politicos—the focus is on the food. The reason you turn your head here is to see what eye-deceiving concoction—is someone actually eating breakfast for dessert?—has been deposited on a nearby table.
Best for: Foodies who think they’ve seen—and eaten—it all.
Best dishes: Hamachi-eel carpaccio suspended ingeniously atop a bowl covered with plastic wrap, the fish, beet-jelly squares, and dried-beet chips all creating shadows on the inside of the vessel; a dish called “eggs” that is actually diced scallops with saffron made to resemble scrambled eggs, a divine cauliflower mousse in an egg cup, fried eggplant impersonating a sunny-side-up egg with thin strips of bacon on top, and a “hardboiled egg” made with mozzarella and yellow-tomato purée; a profoundly intense wild-mushroom soup presented as a cappuccino and topped with potato foam; a caviar can filled with poached lobster, a soft poached egg, pearls of black squid ink—and no caviar; sablefish with a miso glaze, sublime and elegant; rosy, surpassingly tender venison crusted with black peppercorns and napped by a red-wine/port sauce; a virtuosic, Asian-style “duck three ways”; jolie pomme, an apple sorbet with translucent dried-apple chips; a five-layer huckleberry cheesecake; a napoleon as crunchy as it is sublimely creamy.
Insider tips: If the tasting menus are tantalizing but too expensive, ask your server to supplement the three-course prix fixe with an extra appetizer or two—a great way to experience more of Richard’s genius. But when it comes to the city’s deepest, most impressive wine list, no such outs exist. The cost is high, but the wines are well worth the expense.
2 CityZen ★★★★
Mandarin Oriental hotel, 1330 Maryland Ave., SW | 202-787-6006
Cuisine: A dazzling mix of French, Asian, and American regional influences that, for all its finesse, never seems pretentious. Chef Eric Ziebold, a Thomas Keller disciple, is equally adept at raising the eyebrows of the palate-fatigued—with, say, chili consommé with chili-powder mousse—as he is at coaxing sighs from the unsuspecting with his butter-sheened Parker House rolls.
Mood: High ceilings, stone pillars, oversize swag lamps, and a serious waitstaff make it hard to forget you’re in a temple of exalted cuisine. But when the dining room is full, as it is most of the time, there’s a communal hum of satisfaction.
Best for: Impressing pals or clients from New York or toasting a milestone.
Best dishes: Plumjack cocktail made with plum extract and Jack Daniel’s on the rocks; a signature amuse-bouche of olive-oil custard with red-chili sauce on top; chili consommé with an oval of chili-powder mousse to cool the liquid fire; grilled sirloin of Kagoshima Wagyu beef, worth every penny of the $30 surcharge; succulent roast shoulder of shoat with caramelized salsify; rib eye with caramelized short ribs and chestnuts; cheeses from the trolley; “s’mores” crepe with marshmallow soufflé and smoky milk-chocolate sauce; Valrhona-chocolate croquettes with pears.
Insider tips: Ask for a second round of those gemlike Parker House rolls and the server will “have to check,” but there’s a 50/50 chance you’ll get another box. If you have a child in tow, don’t hesitate to inquire about an alternative to the fixed-price three-course menu ($75) or six-course tasting menu ($105). The result might be fresh fettuccine you’ll want yourself. A three-course, $50 menu at the bar is a good option if you’re dining alone.