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The new Ellington Park Bistro returns an imaginative chef to D.C.

A modern take on chicken cordon bleu at Ellington Park Bistro. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post)

On his way to opening Ellington Park Bistro in Washington, Frank Morales ran through a list of classic dishes he might include, pausing at chicken cordon bleu. The veteran chef thought the stuffed schnitzel could use a makeover.

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“I didn’t want the breading. I didn’t want to put it in a fryer,” says Morales, whose restaurant is in the St. Gregory Hotel near Dupont Circle. “I wanted it to be clean and pretty.” To make the traditional filling less of a torrent when knife hits molten core, the chef placed the gruyere cheese and ham in a satchel of Swiss chard. Instead of breadcrumbs, the skin of the chicken, brushed with duck fat, delivers the expected crisp exterior. The reimagined dish rides to the table on a bed of earthy beluga lentils, carrots and lardons.

Consider the innovation a toast (clink!) to both fresh ideas and the return of Morales, 58, to the District. Most recently, he worked as chef-partner at That’s Amore in Rockville, an early victim of the pandemic, and taught at the late L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg. Longtime observers of the dining scene might remember his good work at the late Oval Room near the White House, Zola next to the Spy Museum and Rustico in Alexandria. Before Washington, the native New Yorker cooked in Manhattan at such hits as Union Pacific and the French-influenced Le Cirque. Following culinary school, he knocked on the back door of Le Cirque immediately after the acclaimed Daniel Boulud “deflected” his request for a job, says Morales. The equally esteemed chef Sylvain Portay ushered the green cook into his kitchen. Note to newbies, in any field: Be persistent.

Ellington Park Bistro brings Morales back to where he started — French territory — this time in a setting that lets you have it your way: the frisson of a small dining room that includes a handsome bar or the calm of a club room situated across from the lobby and up a short flight of stairs.

The latter space was where I found myself shortly after the bistro opened in November — and where I found answers to a host of dining questions from readers.

What’s quiet and doesn’t cost a fortune? A cocoon of green walls and black-and-white portraits of stairs, doors and shutters, the club room is an ideal place to unwind with a significant other or catch up with friends you haven’t seen in forever. A sound check declares the space conducive to conversation, uncommon in a restaurant where the main courses average $34 — a bargain given the location and finesse on the plate. If there’s a drawback, it’s the illumination, evinced one night by two separate couples perusing their menus with the help of the flashlights on their phones.

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Where can a small group of us meet up for drinks and dinner last minute? A marble table in the center of the club room seats up to eight diners and sits just a few yards away from a second bar, drinks from which include “Take A Train” (cognac, rhum agricole, several kinds of citrus) that ferries you from winter to the tropics with every sip. The talent behind the cocktail menu is also the bistro’s food and beverage director, Taha Ismail, late of the Willard InterContinental hotel. A native of Morocco, he’s partial to spices in his libations. See — or better yet, taste — the housemade ginger-syrup tinted with turmeric in the tequila-fueled “In a Mellow Tone,” sweetened with fresh pineapple juice. The newness of Ellington Park Bistro probably accounts for the fact I’ve been able to get same-day reservations.

What’s your favorite restaurant? Of late, I’ll find any excuse to eat Morales’s cooking, a marriage of time-honored French presentations (escargots, coq au vin) and riffs on crowd-pleasers (tart flambés, smash burgers elevated with wagyu beef). Better still when the orders are taken by servers who seem to enjoy what they’re doing and know when to enter a conversation and when to manage a party with their eyes from a discreet distance.

Typically, I like to wait until everyone gets their plate before I start eating, but all bets are off when a cone of skinny, hand-cut fries lands on the table. They’re meant to be paired with a bowl of tender steamed mussels, but their mere fragrance finds everyone’s fingers diving for the hot bouquet. No need for mayonnaise or ketchup when there’s a broth of unsweetened coconut milk, pastis and mussel liquor on standby. Another shareable appetizer is the tart flambé, a blistered raft of warm bread slathered with fromage blanc and truffle butter and scattered with curls of smoked ham and sweet Vidalia onion — pizza by way of Alsace.

Depending on your grip, retrieving snails from their shells with tongs and forks is either fun or folly. Morales sidesteps the issue by serving his absinthe-flavored escargots atop gougeres, pepper-spiked cheese puffs that add a crisp counterpoint to the tender pleasure. His French onion soup, using veal stock, is another fine example of no component overwhelming another. The tang of the cheese is the perfect foil for the broth, kissed with madeira. Truly, his balancing acts rival Simone Biles’s.

You want to time your visits to explore Tuesday’s duck confit and Friday’s bouillabaisse, among the restaurant’s plats du jour. I most look forward to Thursday and the opportunity to experience flounder stuffed with shellfish mousseline, soft as meringue and lit with harissa. Minced green beans make for a crisp base; lobster sauce tastes like equal parts seafood and butter.

Fish is a strong suit of the kitchen. The delicious trout amandine at Le Diplomate on 14th Street faces fresh competition in the branzino with slivered toasted almonds at Ellington Park Bistro, enhanced with kumquats, “the only (citrus) fruit you can eat the skin and the flesh” and both are agreeable, says Morales, who also graces the fish with a brown butter sauce flavored with tomato and kumquats. Another pleasure from the deep blue sea is Arctic char, topped with baby carrots cooked in duck fat and staged on lime-zapped Swiss chard. Ringing the fish are a shimmering Thai basil oil and carrot-ginger reduction.

The food can be fun. As with the short rib sandwich at Joy by Seven Reasons, the bistro’s rich smash burger ought to be dropped off with gloves. “I like it to be messy,” says Morales of the saucy feast packed in a pretzel bun. Here and there, little surprises pop up. Order the creme brulee and out comes a slice of genoise with a veneer of the expected custard. You still get the signature glassy crackle, along with a scoop of honey ice cream. And how cool to learn that the restaurant employs a music stylist to change the background sounds from month to month.

Did I mention there’s live music at brunch and a third dining option on the horizon? The salon-like living room next to the club room is expected to serve small plates and fondue as well as cocktails later this winter. Even now, though, and seven days a week, Ellington Park Bistro checks all the right boxes.

Ellington Park Bistro

2033 M St. NW. 202-888-2899. Open for indoor dining daily for breakfast 7 to 11 a.m. and dinner 5 to 11 p.m. Brunch is served 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Prices: dinner appetizers $12 to $21, main courses $22 to $42. Sound check in the club room: 69 decibels/Conversation is easy. In the main dining room: 72 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers to entry; restrooms are ADA-approved. Pandemic protocols: Staff are not required to be masked or vaccinated.