A delectable debut
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, April 22, 2012
The difference between the fare at Mintwood Place and so many other neighborhood dining rooms is the distinction between black-and-white and Technicolor. Even the most familiar-sounding dishes at the new restaurant in Adams Morgan surprise you with their rich treatments and vivid flavors.
Goat cheese and beets are two ingredients found in some form together on just about every contemporary American restaurant menu. I thought I had tried every iteration of dairy and vegetable (typically as a salad) until I encountered the "mountain pie" by chef Cedric Maupillier, who models his appetizer on the cheese sandwiches he toasted over campfires as a boy scout in his native France. At Mintwood, a round of goat cheese, a slice of cooked beet and some grilled onions are tucked between slices of pullman bread, slipped into a cast-iron press and placed in a wood-burning oven from which it emerges a light stack of wonder.
How to improve on classic tagliatelle Bolognese? Start with a bolt of al dente noodles, drape it with ground beef, pork and veal brightened with fresh tarragon and basil, file some Parmesan cheese over the entree, and keep grating until the surface disappears beneath a drift of what looks like snow.
Chocolate has no power over me - or so I thought until I found myself sitting in front of the brownie sundae at Mintwood Place one night, attacking a tower of fudgy cake, homemade ice cream, whipped cream and candy sprinkles with my spoon until nothing remained but the smile on my face. The confection, lashed with maple-caramel sauce, looks like a child's birthday cake and begets plate-scraping enthusiasm.
"You eat first with your eyes," the chef says of his attention to presentation.
When Mintwood Place was still a gleam in the eye of Saied Azali, who also owns the long-running Perry's next door, he imagined the space with a smoker. The concept changed in June when Azali teamed up with Maupillier, the opening chef at Central Michel Richard downtown, and they opted for that wood-fired oven.
We may never know what the chef can do with pulled pork or brisket. But I'm here to vouch for his chopped chicken liver tartine and escargot hush puppies, among the American ideas he suffuses with a French accent.
Like the master craftsman he once worked for, Michel Richard, Maupillier likes to add a delicate crunch to his food. Mintwood's steak tartare, one of the best in the city, is as much a success for the minute dice of fried potato paving its rosy surface
as for the hand-minced meat (eye of round) spiked with the traditional teasers of hot sauce, capers and gherkins.
Seasonal items are flagged on the menu, and you'd be smart to try them. The fish known as shad is as much a harbinger of spring as fiddlehead ferns and ramps, and one of the few delicacies that remains available only in its season, spring. Shad roe is easier to find than the fish itself, in part because the fish requires serious skill to debone. So I was thrilled to find the two paired together at Mintwood Place, the roe burnished with cured lardo, or fatback, instead of the more common garnish of bacon. The translucent fat melted into the fish eggs to create a shiny surface and creamier eating; a cushion of fleshy mushrooms provided luscious support.
Get past the terse menu descriptions and you'll discover a "cast-iron chicken" to stir the senses. A brine of lemon, bay leaf and thyme make for a breast and leg that swell with flavor; red bliss potatoes and garlic confit up the pleasure factor. The straight-forward-sounding "hangar steak frites" reminds us that the chef consulted at the so-so Medium Rare, the fixed-price meat market in Cleveland Park, before he left to pursue a place of his own. Maupillier gives his french fries an upgrade, first peeling the potatoes before dipping them in bubbling beef tallow.
And so it goes with the simply titled desserts. That best-of-class brownie turns out to have some competition for diners' attention. Rivals include a sublime apple tart, Key lime pie and baked Alaska (baked Alaska!) torched at the table with Chartreuse.
While much of the menu tastes as if you're dining in tonier parts of the city, the chef embraces the neighborhood by reaching out to his youngest customers and their parents with more than half a dozen dishes that slip sophistication into the mix: chicken sausage with potato gratin instead of chicken tenders and fries, for instance, and salmon with lentils as a rebuff to fish sticks. There's also a smaller version of Maupillier's superior half-pound hamburger. Unlike the burger for grown-ups, this one is free of bacon and comes with french fries and a green salad rather than a single choice: the chef's sly appeal to parents and kids alike.
The wine pricing could be friendlier ($42 for prosecco that retails for about $14?), but if you're a Burgundy fan or appreciate the obscure-but-impressive, the list is an interesting read.
The interior bows to the food. Knotty reclaimed wood, leather booths the color of espresso and some strategically placed wheat stalks and vintage ironwork create a cozy, uncomplicated setting for Maupillier's scene-stealing cooking. However, you'll need strong lungs to communicate with your tablemates. The sound levels here place you on a factory floor.
I never made it into the restaurant without someone tagging me, but just because you're identified as a restaurant critic doesn't mean you might not experience bread delays or the discomfort of the rear of Mintwood Place and what might be the worst seat in the house: No. 9, for those who want to avoid the awkward corner table. Fortunately, Maupillier's cooking has a way of distracting a diner from any nonedible flaws here.
The talent behind this restaurant refers to it as a gathering spot for locals. But Mintwood Place is a neighborhood destination in the same way "Singin' in the Rain" is just another musical.