Long story short for those who missed the advance hype: Stephen Starr, the king of the Philadelphia restaurant scene (and a prince of New York’s), spent $6.5 million to turn a vacant dry cleaner in Logan Circle into one of the most convincing French bistros the city has ever seen. Rolled out in April, Le Diplomate, dressed in red banquettes and a zinc-paved bar, represents Starr’s Washington debut but his 30th culinary concept.
With four dinners under my belt, I was most surprised by Le Diplomate’s reliability, consistency being one of the hardest qualities for a restaurant to achieve. Starr deployed a dozen of his employees from Philadelphia to help with the opening, and “some are still helping,” says general manager Patrick Desotelle, formerly of the well-oiled Zaytinya.
Bread, loaves and loaves of it, greets you at the entrance and then follows you to your table in a burlap-lined basket. The baguettes have an authentic crackle; the lightly salted butter is whipped for easier spreading. Slices of rye-wheat bread and cranberry-walnut boule (picture a squashed ball) round out the best carbo-load in the city. Take a bow, baker Lawrence Kilbourne.
Seafood launches the printed menu, and oysters (at a minimum) should be your entry point. While the $65 petit plateau sounds extravagant — “The whole ocean just rolled in!” cried a friend when the fruits de mer landed on the table — the arrangement breaks down to a fair $16 or so if four of you are fishing from it. Staged on a bed of shaved ice strewn with seaweed are plump gulf shrimp, glistening Belon oysters, sparkling scallop seviche, a fan of mussels, pleasantly chewy whelks and the lone disappointment in the ocean picnic: lightly poached and underwhelming lobster. No sooner are you looking for a place to rinse your hands after the feast than hot towels follow.
Attentive service, it turns out, is another hallmark of Le Diplomate. Desotelle says the dining room staff was hired based on “nice personalities,” but an initial week of food training also had recruits sampling the entire menu. Throw in regular pre-shift quizzes, and you’ve got a team that doesn’t have to make up any answers.
Adam Schop does a dead-on impression of a French chef, although he was born in New York and grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., before going on to beat out a bunch of Gallic names to get the position he has now. No matter which path you take on his menu, you encounter something you can’t wait to eat again.
A pale green soup of asparagus captures the essence of that harbinger of spring. Salade verte brings a soft stack of Bibb lettuce interspersed with perfect green beans and minced shallots, a fetching construction splashed with an assertive red wine vinaigrette. Someone at the table needs to get the mushroom tart — and be willing to share the appetizer. It won’t be easy. The base is crisp, flaky and rich with butter; the topping of mushroom duxelles, celery root and cheese fondue is scrumptious. In sum, you don’t have to eat meat to dig Le Diplomate.
The classics are well-represented; Schop and his team of 25 (!) cooks remind you why traditions endure. Steak tartare delivers just the right Dijon and hot sauce kick in its seasoning; roast chicken is as succulent as it gets in Washington (ditto the accompanying whipped Yukon gold potatoes lavished with seemingly a dairy case of butter and cream); and trout amandine is pure tribute to fresh fish and slivered nuts. I applaud the idea of an omelet for dinner and appreciate how this one stays hot and fluffy till the very end. Steak au poivre is grilled just the shade you want and packs a proper pepper punch. The kitchen also sends out the best veal escalope I can remember: thin, fork-tender slices of seared meat draped with a fabulous morel cream sharpened with charred ramps. Bliss in every bite.
To eat Schop’s food is to imagine yourself in a stylish neighborhood in Paris, where the chef ate his way through two dozen bistros in advance of Le Diplomate’s opening. But even those few dishes that have a different accent strike a genuine note. Ricotta-stuffed ravioli with a sauce of tangy crushed tomato is good enough to apply for a menu position at Fiola in Penn Quarter.
The restaurant takes its liquids as seriously as its solids, and I suspect Starr is using his significant clout to buy good wine at great deals. Pop open something with bubbles, if only to celebrate the fact you snared a table in this big and happy dining room. The prices are attractive: $35 for a cremant — a sparkling wine made in the Champagne method — from the Loire (the elegant Marcel Martin) and $55 for a cremant from Alsace (Pfister Blanc de Blanc). Other charmers from Alsace include the Ostertag Riesling for $43, which typically retails in the mid-$20s, and the 2010 Sipp-Mack Gewurztraminer for $44. Kermit Lynch, the esteemed wine importer, figures prominently on the French-focused list. If you enjoy rosé, seek out his 2012 Domaine de Fontsainte Corbieres. The wine from France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region sports strawberry notes, nice acidity, a long finish — and a welcoming $27 price tag. You can also drop triple digits for a bottle of wine at Le Diplomate, but my point is, you needn’t.
Unlike so many other places, this one doesn’t lose steam near the end of the meal. Thanks to pastry chef Naomi Gallego, desserts are as compelling as savory courses. On the light end, there’s a refreshing grapefruit sorbet with cinnamon whipped cream and delicate cookies. More indulgent is her caramelized apple tart set off with velvety vanilla ice cream.
Le Diplomate is not without flaws, most of which I attribute to its popularity. The bistro is a pain in the ear, a side effect of the crowds that routinely fill its 265 seats (counting the covered patio). And good luck getting a reservation for other than 5 or 9 at night on short notice. While it takes hunting, a bistro-goer can also find a lesser dish on the menu. I didn’t like the escargots in their one-note hazelnut butter sauce in the early days, and my feelings for the first course have yet to change.
Ultimately, they are all minor distractions in a restaurant with major appeal.