By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 16, 1997
What a show! The sets! The cast! The exquisite fish, the lavish fungi, the exotic berries from the other side of the world! To walk into the Carlton Hotel's new restaurant import from New York is to catch your breath at the glitter of it all.
No doubt about it: Lespinasse has a dining room befitting its position as Washington's most expensive restaurant. The room's ceiling has elaborately hand-stenciled wood beams that project a palatial splendor. The royal blue and gold color scheme is as aristocratic as the Limoges china and Riedel crystal. Against the floor-length tablecloths, small bouquets of coral roses look exquisitely sweet. The space is magnificent, although some of the tables for two don't have the space that a couple paying $400 for dinner might expect.
When a restaurant sets new price levels in a city, that tends to drown out discussion of, say, its poached turbot with mung beans. To be sure, this Lespinasse is not as costly as the New York original, where the six-course tasting menu is $135 rather than $110 and the entrees are $6 to $9 higher than they are here. But the restaurant itself publicizes its extravagance -- its custom-built 17-foot Bonnet stove, its $200-a-yard table linens.
Lespinasse has not moved here with its world-class chef, Gray Kunz. Rather, it has opened a branch and dispatched his 31-year-old sous chef, Troy Dupuy -- which might cause diners to wonder whether this isn't just Lespinasse Junior, a sort of culinary road show. When customers pay this much, it's not because of an instant ice cream machine or a kitchen staff that hovers at around two dozen, nor for "in the school of" cooking. It's for masterpieces.
After several visits to Washington's Lespinasse, I went to New York's for a comparison. The St. Regis Hotel dining room seemed muted in contrast with D.C.'s blue-and-gold magnificence. Few sommeliers can compare to Washington's Vincent Feraud, who takes pride in finding good values as well as good matches, and marks his wines up only 2 1/2 times, rather than three times as many restaurants do. And the absolutely correct but cool service is no match for the youthful elegance of Washington's dining room staff. Troy Dupuy's kitchen is slow, though, and a meal can be excruciatingly long here. So I'd give New York points for pacing.
But the food: That's the crucial matter. The Washington menu overlaps New York's, but it largely goes its own way. Dupuy's fruit and vegetable accents are more exotic: green papaya with the steamed bass, pomegranate with the venison, vinaigrettes of mango or galanga, persimmon juice with the duck. His foie gras with cape gooseberries is a revelation, as if this rich liver and these piquant little fruits had a former life together.
Yet, oddly, flavor is often Dupuy's weakness. This is a chef who focuses on flawless execution above all else. His lobster is cooked until it has just barely jelled, seemingly moments away from actually swimming in its seawater-light broth, and his poached turbot has the firm-yet-fragile texture usually associated with Dover sole. Meats combine crustiness and supple rareness, and tiny radishes or turnips or bok choy are always lightly done.
A meal at Lespinasse is a choir of contrasting textures -- crisped pancetta with the turbot, crackling dried persimmon slices with the duck, a lettuce leaf transformed into translucent parchment for the shellfish ragout. Spears and triangles of pastry stand guard over the plate, sometimes with herbs or seaweed strands pressed in to create a shadow play effect.
While the mouth is entertained by the textures, the eye revels in the shapes and colors. As at a Japanese kaiseki dinner, each dish arrives on a distinctive plate, perhaps a rectangular slab or a porcelain square. The immensely popular truffle risotto comes with a tiny silver sauce pot of mushroom fricassee. Even the ingredients play an important geometric role. A black diamond of seaweed is layered with red tuna, pink salmon, white jicama, green dill -- on a bed of gravlax ruffled to look like a roiling sea.
Yet in spite of all this drama, one still yearns for more mastery of flavor. The fruit sauces and garnishes are sometimes cloying. The handsome fluff of crab salad with an avocado halo has little taste. Veal with sweetbreads is bland, as are a couple of the fish dishes. The seductive, elusive flavor of sea urchin is lost when it's turned into a custard, although its accompanying knots of julienned raw scallops with caviar are spectacular on their own. Squab is marvelous, simply roasted and served with potatoes -- both mashed and in wedges -- plus aromatic leeks and truffles, though the latter have had no perceptible flavor. That's the kind of problem that arises when the menu is fixed but supplies are erratic. And salt has ruined more than one dish, most sadly when the otherwise extraordinary foie gras is sitting on clumps of coarse salt.
Dupuy also produces some smash hits, such as the steamed bass with green papaya in a faintly sweet broth of Sauternes and shrimp, the brilliant sea-and-earth matching of lobster with turnips, or the simple hamachi -- yellowtail -- which is grilled so that under the crustiness it's moist enough that you can practically squeeze out the juices. When all goes well here, dishes have a swirl of tastes -- of tart or bitter moments, peppery detonations and salty pinpricks. And unlike the winter dishes at New York's Lespinasse, this food is never heavy.
Which usually leaves room for dessert. Unlike the savory courses, the desserts' flavors outshine the textures. Lemon ice cream has a great startling tartness, but none of the ice creams feels right in the mouth, and the sorbets are unpleasantly like whipped egg white. Stewed quince and green apple in a mille-feuille are a heavy mush, while ginger souffle is a bit weighty. Yet a scrumptious roasted baby banana gives me hope -- it's served with caramel sauce on a wonderful kind of souffled brownie. And the tiny after-dinner pastries are gems.
Like a new wine from a great vintage, Lespinasse shows grand promise. The problem is that it's priced as if it had already been cellared for a decade.