French and Indian Flavors Mingle in Penn Quarter
Elaborate bars and lounges often lead restaurant critics not to expect much from the dining rooms attached to them. Does the restaurant expect to make most of its profit from alcohol and neglect the food? In the case of IndeBleu, the lovely new Adamstein & Demetrioudesigned bar/lounge/restaurant near the MCI Center, the answer is a resounding no.
Upstairs from the minimalist bar with a color-coded cocktail menu and the lounge with swinging sofas bathed in a red glow, there's a handsome dining room that must rank among the most successful designs of the talented husband-and-wife architectural team. A catwalk across the double-height entryway connects the stairway to the dining room. Windows overlook the National Portrait Gallery and the MCI Center across Seventh Street. Sumptuous leather booths line one wall. There's a delightful theatricality about the kitchen table, which rotates to allow guests a view of the gleaming stainless-steel kitchen and its tandoor ovens.
A restaurant critic might also be forgiven some skepticism about the French and Indian theme of the restaurant. True, there is Indian-influenced French cooking from former French colonies such as Pondicherry, but that's not what IndeBleu is about. Chef Vikram Garg calls his cooking "modern French cuisine accented with the exotic flavors of India." But because there is, in fact, very little difference these days between Modern French and Modern American cooking, the French element is less prominent than the Indian spices, which the chef uses sensitively and often to wonderful effect.
A meal at IndeBleu starts with buttery Indian bread straight from the tandoor. The menu is divided into first, second, and main courses. First and second courses are priced, except for caviar, between $8 and $18. There's no clear distinction between the two courses–separating them seems to serve no purpose except to encourage diners to order an extra course. That said, there are some very good dishes in both categories: a tower of lobster and crabmeat, given piquancy by pine nuts and curry oil; a delightful samosa filled with rabbit confit and served with apple chutney; a cumin-scented scallop, its sweetness in contrast to the bitterness of braised chicory; delicious veal-stuffed gnocchi with chanterelles and walnuts.
It is in the selection of main courses that this kitchen shines. A tender and flavorful old-fashioned chicken fricassee is garnished with morels and a pesto of curry leaves. Tenderloin of veal is served with cardamom-flavored sweetbreads and a potato cooked in the tandoor. Beef tenderloin is delicately seasoned with seven-spice powder and served with beautifully cooked young vegetables. The star of the menu is the tandoori rack of lamb, marinated in Indian spices and served with a ragoût of green lentils and a grilled portobello mushroom. This is fusion cooking to make you forget all the meals that have given fusion cooking a bad name.
The desserts, Indian-influenced but adapted to American tastes, are unusual and delicious. A lychee-and-mint panna cotta sits on a tart of roasted pears. Most amusing is a dish of "spaghetti and meatballs," the "spaghetti" made by pushing saffron cardamom ice cream through a ricer at the table and serving it served with "meatballs" of gulab jamunflavored rose water.
As good as the food is, perhaps the real accomplishment of IndeBleu in its early days is the service. Under the direction of general manager Jay Coldren, a veteran of the Inn at Little Washington, IndeBleu achieved in its opening weeks a smoothness and competence that many long-established restaurants might envy. Never over-familiar, never over-deferential, it's a model of good American-style service.
The wine list at Indebleu is well chosen, strong in French and California reds that go well with the food. It is, however, expensive.
Food: Contemporary French and American with Indian flavors.
Atmosphere: Restrained elegance in the dining room, contemporary minimalism in the bar, playful informality in the lounge.
Service: Accomplished American-style service.
Price: Expensive. Dinner for two: about $135.
Value: The food is on the pricey side, but considering the total experience, it's in line with comparable restaurants.
Bottom Line: A first-rate dining experience with polished service and an unusual menu.