Paris on Pennsylvania
A famous French chef lends a novel style and a city's allure to Cafe du Parc
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Fresh from a tour of Paris bistros, I'm sitting at the new Cafe du Parc in Washington and feeling as if I'm still exploring the City of Light. Maybe it's the waiter's French accent. Perhaps it's the mille-feuille, "a thousand leaves" of fine puff pastry supporting a lovely, not-too-sweet vanilla custard. My view, from a sidewalk table outside the Willard InterContinental hotel, fuels the illusion, too: The facades of nearby buildings, including the Treasury, look appropriately aged and grand.
May I make a confession? I wasn't expecting Cafe du Parc to perform with such authenticity. My experiences eating at the Willard over the years have not been stellar. But the owners were wise to look abroad for inspiration, in this case recruiting Antoine Westermann, one of France's leading chefs, as a consultant. (His restaurant Le Buerehiesel in Strasbourg claims three stars from the prestigious Michelin Guide.) On the surface, all of that might not sound like such a big deal, because celebrity chefs sharing a few ideas from a distance are as common as suspenders on Larry King. Under the terms of his contract, Westermann is obligated to visit four times a year. Beyond that, he sent some of his top performers to Washington to try to replicate a Parisian experience. Cafe du Parc's ranks include a restaurant manager, a pastry chef and a chef de cuisine (27-year-old Christophe Marque) from Westermann's innovative Paris restaurant Drouant.
You won't get a good impression from the ground-floor bar, which has all the right props -- a floor made of tiny tiles, a marble counter, wine bottles on ice -- but still feels chilly and sterile. To fully appreciate Cafe du Parc, you have to eat alfresco, under a big blue umbrella and inside a wrought-iron fence; or climb the stairs to a tidy open kitchen. There the surrounding dining room is understated, with cream-colored walls and dark wood floors. Shots of color come by way of Aegean-blue banquettes and broad windows that frame treetops and a park across the street. As at so many bistros in Paris, the tables are bare and closely packed, and the noise level ratchets up at rush hour (in this case, high noon).
This is a kitchen that doesn't shout to make itself heard. It gets a diner's attention with subtle touches. Summer's heat recedes with every spoon of gazpacho. A frequent special that is indeed a little different, the first course starts with basil oil and pine nuts in the center of the bowl; the garnish is topped at the table with a ladle of delicate tomato and cucumber puree. In another offering, a little mountain of frisee and greens is decorated with airy croutons, sharp blue cheese, a soft-cooked egg and crisp lardons -- a salad that is American in size and French in flavor. Equally substantial is a bowl of steamed mussels: small, sweet and tender specimens in a lovely garlicky bath. Two of you might consider sharing them as a starter. You can also trust the steak tartare to be moist and boldly seasoned.
Drouant's dishes often feature a theme presented multiple ways on a single plate, a style repeated at Cafe du Parc with the Mediterranean sampler. It's an engaging tour that might bring together cilantro-laced mushrooms and baby artichokes, a refreshing squid salad and sweet ratatouille on a chickpea wafer. Another dish with a Westermann stamp is the roasted and braised veal breast. A tasty core of chopped baby spinach, black olives, garlic and more in the center of each slice of meat gives the canvas color and character.
Chances are, you will be well taken care of at Cafe du Parc. Servers are quick with suggestions and explanations, while suits patrol the dining room looking for opportunities to make small talk or clear a table. A plate of hot gourges (cheese puffs) might unexpectedly show up with an order of drinks -- "something to nibble on with your wine," a waiter explains. In the small-world department, I notice he's a familiar face from an earlier trip to Paris. "I was the bartender at Drouant," he says, to explain my deja vu.
The wine didn't go to my head. It's possible to experience an unexciting dish at Cafe du Parc. A diner who orders the thin and routine entrecote or the merely pleasant monkfish bound in bacon might wonder what the fuss is about. And tomatoes stuffed with a veritable kitchen sink of southwestern French flavors -- chopped eggplant, zucchini, goat cheese and basil -- reflect chef Marque's background but are tiresome despite all the accents.
Yet the majority of the food is very appealing. A main course I greatly look forward to eating again is the crisp golden cod, ringed with a garland of diced tomato, chives and frisee and set on a shimmering pool of extra-virgin olive oil. The joust between acid and sweet in the composition is delicious. Another savory treat is fresh pork belly. The server's eyes alight when she describes the herb-marinated entree, but she also cautions that the meat's flavor comes from its abundant fat. And, sure enough, the entree, cooked for 24 hours in a plastic pouch (sous vide) is several inches of warm fat and succulent pork beneath crisp golden skin flecked with airy sea salt. It's also a rectangular cake of unrestrained pleasure and unabashed decadence. The entree was rich for lunch, so I asked to have the leftovers wrapped. I point this out because Cafe du Parc does a superior job with remains: Not only was my uneaten food arranged as if it were still on a restaurant plate, with all the garnishes accounted for and the gravy thoughtfully stowed in a covered plastic cup, but the leftovers were returned in a handsome white tote that would have looked at home on the streets of Saint-Germain.
In another chic touch, the side dishes are ferried to the table in tiny red casseroles. Awaiting your pleasure beneath the little lids might be buttery whipped potatoes, crisp haricot verts and perhaps a fine mush of tomatoes, peppers and onions -- a rousing ratatouille. A turban of buttery fresh noodles is soothing; carefully pared roast potatoes show finesse with a knife.
Pastry chef Morgan Bomboy reminds us why mille-feuille and the like have been around seemingly forever. When they're well-made, the French classics are memorable. A restrained hand with sugar means a diner can actually taste the featured ingredients, and the portion sizes are appropriately modest. Rice pudding produces an old-fashioned comfort; chocolate mousse is dense and dreamy; and the fruit desserts (think strawberries on sponge cake) trumpet the season. The ending that charms me most is lemon curd puddled in a sheer tartlette. The tang of the filling plays nicely against a sweet topknot of meringue. Not all efforts are created equal, however: Trays of breads on display in the bar showcase much of the French baking repertoire -- brioches, chocolate-lined croissants, sugar-dusted palmiers and madeleines -- but they take back seats to what's listed on the formal dessert menu.
Downtown is brimming with bistros, with Central Michel Richard and Brasserie Beck getting the bulk of the buzz and the business. Cafe du Parc is worthy competition--and proof there's room for more on the scene.