A feather in the Jefferson's cap: Tom Sietsema reviews Plume at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C.
1200 16th St. NW. 202-448-2322. www.jeffersondc.com.
**1/2 (out of 4)
Sound check: 63 decibels/Conversation is easy
Didn't make it to Paris this year? Neither did I. But I got to pretend I took the trip, and so can you. All it takes is a reservation at the new restaurant in the sumptuously renovated Jefferson Hotel. It's called Plume, and it's inspired by one of the biggest Francophiles this country has known, Thomas Jefferson.
From the moment you enter the hotel, where the doors are flung open by uniformed attendants and the hosts welcome you with warm smiles, you know you're in a special place.
Illuminated by crystal chandeliers and animated by a dancing fire, Plume refuses to acknowledge economic hard times. Would the gentleman like a velvet stool for his attache case? (Oh, why not?) Shortly after you're handed a menu, something delightful appears: first warm cheese puffs and a spoon of scrambled egg glistening with domestic caviar; then a demitasse of soup, perhaps liquid squash capped with a whip of cinnamon, more savory than sweet. The bright-eyed sommelier looks as if he's still in college, but wine enthusiasts know better: Michael Scaffidi, 33, left the Greenbrier resort to come to Washington and the Jefferson.
Lucky us. Plume's wine director, who also spent three years at the world-class French Laundry in Napa Valley, talks about wine the way Leonard Bernstein rhapsodized about music. "I like to think: What would [Thomas Jefferson] drink if he were around today?" So there are Rieslings and Madeiras, among other choices. His inventory celebrates half-bottles, spans 19 countries and is priced to please.
While Scaffidi fetches your selection, you take in the scenery. Everything is rich. Plume's 17 linen-draped tables are so generously spaced, they practically merit their own Zip codes. Hand-painted silk wall coverings bring to life Monticello as it supposedly looked during the third American president's era. And I see cheese in my future every time the glass-domed trolley crisscrosses the room. Carved into intimate dining areas, Plume is civilized but not stodgy: The floors are walnut, and the sound of Nat King Cole has been known to lighten up dinner.
The only reason I know I'm not dining in the City of Light is because everyone's speaking English (and I'm not jet-lagged).
Let me temper my enthusiasm. For a luxury restaurant, Plume's menu is pretty short, just a half-dozen appetizers and main courses each. At first reading, there are few dishes that will strike frequent restaurant-goers as worth going out of one's way to explore. Beef tartare? Chicken breast? Seriously? As the chef himself says, "I'm not doing something out in left field."
That's not to say he isn't sending out some wonderful food. Damon Gordon, 39, is a British import who last cooked at the Ivy in San Diego but whose work has been informed by top chefs Michael Bray and Alain Ducasse. Their former underling says that his tenure with them translates to, among other things, a respect for the classics (Bray) and "a love of vegetables, raw and cooked" (Ducasse). There's no better example of the latter than Plume's seasonal salad: right now, ribbons of carrot and shavings of truffle, beet and radish arranged with mache lettuce on asparagus marmalade. The combination would look at home on a fashion runway.
Hotels are more or less required to have one or two dishes on their menus to appease the unadventurous patron. One of the obvious restrained main courses at Plume is a fist of dry-aged beef, served with its marrow and asparagus in ... winter? The meat lacks the subtle mineral quality steak lovers look for in aged meat, and the marrow tastes more of parsley than silky fat. But I wiped the plate clean of its glossy reduction. When it comes to sauces, Gordon is a maestro.
It would be easy to discount the chicken, too, except that the milk-fed poularde, prized for its succulence, is exceptional. Truffle butter slipped beneath the skin and a light coat of toasted bread crumbs, garlic and parsley send the bird soaring.
Gordon likes to impress his audience in quiet ways, with the tinkle of a chime rather than the crash of cymbals. That mysterious note in a lush, crab-sweetened risotto comes from licorice in the swirl. Seared foie gras hiding beneath a sheet of house-made pasta is made distinctive with beads of "caviar" flavored with fresh apple juice and an emulsion of jasmine tea. "It smells so good, I want to put my face in it!" cries a typically discreet friend when the appetizer is set in front of her. Eggs and coffee are promoted from breakfast to dinner in yet another clever idea, a first course that finds a poached egg atop a thick slice of toasted bread. The humble construct becomes haute with the addition of a scattering of chanterelles, a garnish of gold leaf and a wine reduction fueled with roasted Sumatra coffee beans.
When it trips, Plume recovers quickly and graciously. One evening, I looked over to see a companion poking her fork into her steamed bass. "I like rare fish, but this is sashimi," she said. My entree was flawed, too: The eggplant-wrapped lamb loin was tepid, as if it had been sitting around. Both entrees were whisked away and replaced by a bite of pasta while we waited for the kitchen to correct things. When it's warm, I discovered, the lamb is divine. Pattypan squash and other colorful vegetables were neatly lined up, a la Rockettes, above the rosy meat. The second round of bass was nice but upstaged by an silken rectangle of cauliflower custard.
Come the last course, I prefer cheese to cakes, although a couple of desserts, elegant odes to pumpkin and coffee, always vie for my attention.
"Everyone here is so nice!" a friend whispers across the table, where mignardises (gratis, bite-size confections) accompany dessert. He's in for yet more pampering, just as all my companions have been before him, after the bill has been paid and we return to the lobby for our coats. Waiting for us at the host stand are a little bag containing something sweet (tonight: macaroons) and a typed list of the wines we've drunk, bound in a neat scroll. Leftovers have been tucked into handsome gray totes with cloth handles, easily the most chic carryout packaging in town.
The sweets, the cheat sheet, the bag; Plume insists we remember it.
Trust me, it isn't hard.
Sitting pretty: While there's not a bad table in the bunch, some per-ches are superior to others. I'm partial to No. 10, a booth surrounded by books, and either of two tables in what's known as "the atrium," an even more private retreat with a small fountain and skylight.
Open: Dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. All major credit cards. Metro: Farragut North, Dupont Circle. Free valet parking.
Prices: Appetizers $16 to $23, entrees $30 to $38. Tasting menu $85.