Food critic

This review appears in The Washington Post’s 2018 Spring Dining Guide as No. 1 on a list of the year’s 10 best new restaurants.


Honey goat cheese cheesecake with poached rhubarb and honey meringue lemon bars at Elle. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

No. 1. Elle

(Excellent)

One of the owners, Nick Pimentel, is behind the Philippine phenom Bad Saint. Another principal launched Paisley Fig, the admired sweets seller. The top chef used to work at Blue Duck Tavern, and the drinks come from someone who shook and stirred at Columbia Room. Given all the talent involved, what’s to stop a memorable breakfast, lunch or dinner from happening? This site for marvelous breads and pastries by day and enticing medium plates by night is the former Heller’s Bakery, a vestige of which remains in the sign out front, now lit so that just the name of the new restaurant appears. (Clever use of leftovers, right?) Chef Brad Deboy’s worldview and interest in fermentation translate to some original eating at Elle (say “el-ee”): spicy apple salad, charred broccoli tossed with mustard green pesto and shaved Parmesan, toast ignited with kimchi and spaetzle made awesome with clams, crushed red pepper and garlicky fried baguette crumbs. Co-owner Lizzy Evelyn’s never-too-sweet desserts rock. Her favorite is likely to become yours: Ask for the divine single-serve cheesecake, tangy with goat cheese and rolled in crushed nuts and oats. Not so long ago, people asking me what the District lacked heard “neighborhood restaurants.” A welcome wave of local gathering spots has changed my response, with Elle setting the pace not just in Mount Pleasant, but for the whole of Washington.

3 stars

Elle: 3221 Mount Pleasant St. NW. 202-652-0040. eatatelle.com.

Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner Wednesday through Monday; breakfast and lunch Tuesdays.

Prices: Breakfast and lunch items $3 to $12, dinner mains $9 to $24.

Sound check: 83 decibels / Extremely loud.

The Top 10 new restaurants of 2018:

No. 10 Old Maryland Grill

No. 9 The Tavern at Rare Steak and Seafood

No. 8 Unconventional Diner

No. 7 Chloe

No. 6 Maydan

No. 5 Little Pearl

No. 4 A Rake’s Progress

No. 3 Del Mar

No. 2 Fancy Radish

No. 1 Elle

Previous: Supra | Next: Fancy Radish

---

The following review was originally published April 13, 2018.


The pozole verde with pork belly is one of the vibrant dishes at Elle in Mount Pleasant. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

An all-star cast works its magic at Elle in Mount Pleasant

Now and then a restaurant comes along that a critic wishes he could keep to himself. Elle, introduced in January, is that place for me at the moment. I adore the small venue for more reasons than I can count on both hands. Suffice it to say, the all-day cafe brings together a talented staff in an overlooked neighborhood in a beloved space — the former Heller’s Bakery, shuttered four years ago in Mount Pleasant — where just about every dish (even apple salad!) has you asking where it’s been all your foodie life.

Elle’s cast members add up to a dream team. The owners are Nick Pimentel of Bad Saint and Room 11, and pastry chef Lizzy Evelyn, the founder of Paisley Fig. The head chef is Brad Deboy, whose refined work you might have tasted at the all-American Blue Duck Tavern, and before that, the late, southern-themed Vidalia. Your cocktails are whipped up by Sean MacPherson (Columbia Room) and the bread is baked by Dan Fogg (Le Diplomate), whose caraway rye loaves have become, for me, a Sunday addiction.

Deboy’s food tastes like nothing he’s done before. For Elle (say El-ee), the Miami native with some Spanish in his family has come up with ideas that reflect the melting pot he knows and the fermentation he loves.


The tonnato toast with ham is one of four whimsical toasts on the restaurant’s concise menu. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

A cheesecake with tangy goat cheese and a rim of crushed nuts and oats is a creation of co-owner and pastry chef Lizzy Evelyn. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

Charred broccoli sounds like a yawn but elicits a yelp for all the savor in a salad that combines a fermented mustard green pesto, Parmesan cheese, lemon zest and tiny sourdough croutons. A fan of hot fried chicken, Deboy, 36, swaps in duck confit, which he grills and glazes with a “dragon sauce” powered in part by house-made chile sauce, then partners with a fluffy biscuit. Clams and spaetzle make you wonder why no one else has paired them before, at least not like this, fired up with crushed red chile flakes and garlicky baguette crumbs on the surface.

Notice how often bread is incorporated, always to delicious effect? There’s a lot of toast out there right now, but let me say, warm country bread decked with whipped tuna sauce, slow-cooked Parisian ham, pickled fennel stalks and peppery arugula is an inspired combination. And knowing that Evelyn is behind the desserts is the only nudge I need to end dinner with one of her elegant creations. Make mine the honey-kissed miniature cheesecake, subtly tangy with goat cheese and edged in crushed nuts and oats. Or something seasonal like the just-introduced blackberry-thyme layer cake.


Chef Brad Deboy at Elle, which retained a few nods to the previous occupant, Heller’s Bakery. The cozy cafe has counter seating up front and tables in the back. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

Coming soon: hot breakfast sandwiches.

Elle takes the name of Evelyn’s late grandmother, whose recipe for cheese crackers appears on the concise menu. The good times start with a bakery case and green marble bar, and lead to a small backroom with flowery retro wallpaper and servers who act like besties as they guide you through a meal. Ledges facing the front window and hugging the brick wall help seat weekend crowds in particular.

Sweetly, the owners retained Heller’s exterior sign. Smartly, they light up only four middle letters at night: a beacon to follow a beacon.