By carving up the space, De Pue scores with Menu MBK in Penn Quarter
Size matters. Just ask Frederik De Pue.
Six months after he opened the seafood-themed Azur in Penn Quarter last April, the chef closed the four-floor restaurant after flagging a fatal flaw: “The building was too big for the concept,” De Pue says. Rather than ditch the structure, the Belgian native, who owns Table in Shaw, looked around the neighborhood to see what it needed and restocked the space with a trio of diversions.
The ground floor became a food market with produce, cheese and prepared dishes for taking out or eating in; the second story took advantage of an exposed kitchen, rolling out a tasting menu for a handful of diners. Levels three and four morphed into a casual lounge and dining room, respectively, where a bistro menu rules.
De Pue branded the collection Menu Market/BistroBar/Kitchen, but feel free to call the mouthful Menu MBK, or “Menu” for short, as he does. The switcheroo, completed in January, installs Keith Cabot, the former Table sous chef, as chef de cuisine.
Yes, there’s a lot going on here. However, as much as I enjoyed De Pue’s original recipe, Menu makes more sense for more consumers. By day, they can grab a cup of coffee or a sandwich and scoot, or linger with their purchase on a sofa or chair in the lounge. At night, they can graze on small plates, or, with some planning, feast on a five-course dinner narrated by one of the chefs.
My maiden trip found me in the upstairs BistroBar, where the menu arranges its choices under five price points ($8, $14, $18, $25, $34). The least expensive plates feature vegetables, and they are anything but routine. Halved, roasted Brussels sprouts are tossed with pine nuts and cider vinaigrette, then finished with shaved bottarga — dried fish roe — for a subtle maritime flavor. Cauliflower shows up as a cool panna cotta garnished with almonds and a sweetish compote of raisins and capers. Both plates are worth your attention. Unusual doesn’t always translate to “let’s do this again,” however; black lentils with grapefruit and pistachios taste like an incomplete thought. (I’d drop the citrus, for starters.)
Eighteen dollars buys you “crispy cod,” fried brik pastry filled with fluffy brandade and served with a lemony remoulade that provides sunny balance to the equation. For the same price, veal meatballs are both super-juicy and unusually light, treated to a mustard sauce and a refreshing salad of shaved fennel, dill and parsley. How the orbs manage not to levitate is beyond me.
Twenty-five bucks sounds like a lot for steak tartare. BistroBar’s version, built mostly with flat-iron steak, is very good and sufficient for two to share. Seasoned with airy fleur de sel, the chopped red meat glistens with lemon oil and picks up a little earthiness when you swipe it in the nearby truffle oil. A tumbleweed of frizzled celeriac stands in for the usual chips or fries.
Next visit — and I will be back on my own dime — I plan to dip into the $34 well and sample lamb orzo with orange-miso cream.
This is not your everyday bistro. BistroBar exudes more whimsy.
My preferred perch for eating small plates is a curved banquet near the railing that looks down on the entire complex, although I can appreciate the “Friends”-like atmosphere of the third floor, decorated with furnishings that De Pue picked up in his travels. (If he ever retires from cooking, he should consider interior design.) Hyper-attentive staff is offset by a kitchen that cooks at its own pace — meaning everything comes out around the same time. Here’s hoping the table next to yours is vacant and you can use it for temporary storage.
Another day, another way to experience Menu. On a second visit we’ve reserved at Kitchen, just six seats at a counter that looks into the bustle orchestrated by Cabot, 29, who is playing emcee from the other side. (His boss divides his time between Table and here.) De Pue’s ideas for each course are revealed from on high, where rough sketches of the dishes hang from a line that stretches the width of the counter.
The theme for the meal changes from month to month. March, when I reserved, toasted Belgium. Cabot grabs our attention as he places spaghetti-length strips of raw celery root on a slab of slate, then adds shavings of cold foie gras torchon to the vegetable, along with toasted walnuts and a dressing made with coffee and cacao. As offbeat as the combination sounds — and as distant as it appears from the theme — the flavors score on the palate. The second course, sage-infused rabbit, pays tribute to De Pue’s Belgian grandmother. The centerpiece brings together lamb loin and its innards (tasty liver and kidneys) on a vivid spinach puree. After he chats up each dish, Cabot personally passes his work over to his audience.
Sitting so close to where the food is being made makes it easy for diners to ask questions. The trick to keeping the spinach brilliant? Cabot, who comes to Washington from Napa Valley, where he cooked at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc, says he blanches the vegetable in roiling, heavily salted water, then plunges the leaves in an ice bath. Voila! Spinach that stays green as grass.
Course No. 3 brings crisp seared flounder and a little pot of mushroom panna cotta, its surface black with squid ink. Next up: beef filet swaddled in endive that’s caramelized in orange juice and sugar to counter the tartness of the vegetable wrap. The meat, dense and satisfying, is flanked with baby carrots splayed on toasted beer bread crumbs.
The portions are just right: enough bites to let you consider the nuances of each dish but not so much that you want to beg off dessert. Tonight’s parting course is an elegant chocolate bar with peanut butter crunch and a scoop of velvety vanilla gelato.
Kitchen’s dinner theater allows guests to interact with the staff as much or as little as they want, although you should know ahead of booking that privacy is limited. One of the few details I’d change is the space between diners. Let’s just say I’ve had more room flying in coach on a 757.
Menu MBK lets us shop — or snack or fine-dine — til we drop. The concept is also an exception to the rule. More can be more.
-- Tom Sietsema, April 2014