Medium Rare

$$$$ ($15-$24)
This Cleveland Park eatery specializes in one thing and one thing only: steak frites.
5 p.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sunday
5 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
(Cleveland Park)
74 decibels (Must speak with raised voice)

Editorial Review

Editor's note: Chef Cedric Maupillier left Medium Rare after this review went to press. He was replaced by JaiJuan Sheffield.

One man’s meat is another’s gimmick

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 12, 2011

"Do you have a boyfriend?"

"What is your phone number?"

"You take my breath away."

Medium Rare dares to be different in a number of ways, one of which is evident to customers visiting the restroom of the new meat market in Cleveland Park. Instead of the usual musical backdrop, patrons are serenaded by a flirty male voice uttering a series of come-ons translated into French.

It's funny, the first time.

If you haven't heard of the place by now, surrender your foodie card. Medium Rare, which replaces Yanni's Greek Taverna, is brought to us by Mark Bucher, the guy who continues to ride the hamburger wave locally with his mini-chain BGR: The Burger Joint (No. 8 just opened in Cabin John). In March, Bucher graduated to steak with this two-room, 100-seat restaurant and a menu that requires one decision: How do you like your meat cooked?

Not counting a vegetarian option, Medium Rare serves just one entree. That's steak with a side of fries, a marriage the French call steak frites.

The price is peachy. For $19.50, diners get not just a five-ounce fan of meat, draped with "secret sauce" and flanked by a handful of french fries, but also some welcome extras. The first appear at the beginning of the meal: a metal basket of crusty bread and a simple salad dressed with a mustard vinaigrette. Another will surprise newcomers toward the end of the meal: second helpings. Before you finish your steak, a server appears with a tray of more warm beef and fried potatoes.

It's fun, the first time.

Bucher recruited some experienced hands to help foster the gimmick: Cedric Maupillier, a former chef at Central Michel Richard, leads the kitchen as a consulting chef while he plans to open a place of his own; Brian Zipin, another veteran of Central (but most recently at Ray's the Steaks in Arlington), serves as general manager and slakes diners' thirst with a short but suitable wine list.

The casting is notable, like putting Shakespearean-trained actors in a fast-food commercial. Maupillier makes sure the french fries are terrific - he brines the hand-cut potatoes before frying them twice in canola oil - and the steak is (generally) cooked as you ask for it. Zipin greets, seats and ferries food like the pro that he is, but I have to wonder how excited he can be get about selling a wine list of fewer than a dozen labels. My favorite first sip is a young white burgundy from Maison Verget. With the meat, I like to segue to a grenache blend from Bertrand Berge. Both wines are available by the glass for $11 and $9, respectively.

That salad? It's made up of ruffles of butter lettuce, fresher-looking some days than others, with a few halved cherry tomatoes and a dressing that could use more of a mustard punch.

The meat? Bucher buys cap steak, carved from the top sirloin, mostly from Allen Brothers in Chicago. Supposedly, the meat is prime and aged, but I haven't picked up those qualities on my several visits to the restaurant, where I've consistently ordered the entree medium-rare. The result, slightly pink and always tender, is not so flavorful that you'd want to eat a lot of it by itself, though the "secret" sauce helps. A CIA agent might detect chicken liver and mustard in the gravy.

If you don't eat meat, you have my sympathy. A few bites of grilled portobello drizzled with red pepper sauce is okay when there's a nip in the air, but not when there are artichokes, asparagus, peas - a bouquet of fresh eating - in the market. Plus, a A more seasonal alternative to the signature entree would give Maupillier a chance to strut his talent.

Before he launched Medium Rare, Bucher asked Michel Richard to be his sauce and sweets adviser, an invitation the star chef declined. The result is a bunch of desserts brought in from the outside and served in portions that suggest an office party is about to take place. "Desserts are on the large size," understates one server. When our carrot cake shows up, the wedge approximates a Webster's. It has the advantage of being moist and spicy, too. The fudgy chocolate cake is similarly titanic and decadent. A baseball-size scoop of ice cream accompanies the apple pie, which is packed with plump pieces of gently spiced fruit.

If you enjoy wine with your meal and have a sweet tooth, Medium Rare is likely to cost you a lot more than $19.50 per person. My dinners here have averaged $60 a head (not counting the time I splurged on a Chateauneuf-du-Pape).

Another thing: In part because the kitchen knows exactly what everyone is having, the food comes out perhaps too quickly. My last visit in this tidy brick-and-wood setting lasted less than 45 minutes. "This is probably the fastest dinner you've had all week," joked Zipin, who tagged me as I was leaving the restaurant with a companion.

Charmed by leftover steak, ginormous desserts and Bazooka bubble gum with the check, my friend hummed the restaurant's praises.

I wanted to like the place more. For me, Medium Rare is not well-done enough.