If you want to understand how radically the classical-French restaurant Mirabelle has changed over the course of its yearlong existence, you have to order the clams. During the day, they’re fried and steamed, with a trio of sauces. At night, they’re on the bar menu as new-wave stuffies, sprinkled with bacon-hazelnut “sand.”
Any way you try them—and you should—the message comes through loud and clear: We’ve lightened up. Don’t mind the formal dining room that looks like a place Betty Draper might patronize while on a Parisian tour. (Two words: maroon leather.) Instead, focus on the Father John Misty on the speakers and the foie gras tacos—cradled in shells made from banana—before you.
The changes come courtesy of Jennifer Knowles, who started as Mirabelle’s wine director, then left for a short stint at Mike Isabella’s Requin. In July, she returned to Mirabelle as beverage director and general manager. (“I’m the boss,” she says.) With the help of chef and Alinea alum Keith Bombaugh, she has revived what had become, disconcertingly early in its much-hyped run, a troubled restaurant.
Knowles and Bombaugh take pains to convey that their focus is still on French cuisine—the space all but demands it—but the best dishes channel the place their hearts really lie: New England. (Both are from Massachusetts.) There’s the lunch menu’s lobster vol-au-vent, a riff on a buttery lobster roll. Halibut with onion soubise looks more canonically French than other dishes—the excellent abalone appetizer comes with dry ice—but evokes clam chowder. Meanwhile, Zoe Ezrailson turns Boston cream pie into cream puffs and crafts gold-leaf-strewn “beehives” that taste like lemon meringue.
Many chefs are driven by memory and nostalgia, but few proclaim that as loudly as Bombaugh. Dishes have names like “Memories of Ice Pond” and “Father’s Garden.” The latter, a salad of tomatoes, snap peas, and chèvre, is lovely. Still, to hear the server tell the same story about it to various tables—it’s supposed to hark back to a time when Bombaugh was “cutting down beanstalks and chasing rabbits down holes” in his dad’s back yard—makes it seem less like a quaint memory and more like a sales pitch. Some dishes, such as truffled pasta or an arrangement of sweetbreads, come off as merely ordinary.
Few in DC do service as well as Knowles. And you’ll want to engage her or sommelier Karl Kuhn for down-to-earth wine advice. Otherwise, I’d never have guessed that a Santa Barbara Chardonnay went so nicely with fried clams. If only I could say the same about the interior.
900 16th St., NW; 202-506-3833
Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday for dinner.
Neighborhood: Downtown DC.
Dress: Jeans are fine, just not schlubby ones.
Noise level: Often pleasantly quiet.
Best dishes: Stuffies; foie gras tacos; lobster vol-au-vent; curried abalone; duo of clams; halibut with onion soubise; lemon beehive; cream puffs.
Price range: Starters $16 to $24, entrées $29 to $40.
This article appears in the October 2018 issue of Washingtonian.