When the byline from Boston tipped a bowl of porky pozole verde into her mouth and caught her comrades laughing, she interrupted her slurping only to say, “I’m not apologizing.” My only regret was that it wasn’t me finishing the last of the broth, electric with lime, jalapeño and cilantro.
Deboy definitely knows how to win over people who like the taste of meat but want to cut back. One of his excellent toasts suggests liver but uses madeira-flavored confit mushrooms, and one of his very good pastas is zesty with a “sausage” of fermented chickpeas fired up with fennel seed, garlic and chiles. No reservations? The green marble bar is a cozier alternative to the snug dining room. I never exit without a loaf of bread from the bakery case. For the road, it’s walnut-sage.
3 stars (Excellent)
Elle: 3221 Mount Pleasant St. NW. 202-652-0040. eatatelle.com .
Open: Breakfast and lunch daily, dinner Wednesday through Monday.
Prices: Dinner mains $16-$30.
Sound check: 76 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2018 Fall Dining Guide.
Elle offers a worthy bite any time of day
My idea of “good morning” is a loaf of bread — buckwheat on Wednesday, corn grits on Friday — from this all-day cafe. Lunch finds me at the counter of the bar, pushing aside a lamb sandwich that’s frankly better for its wrapper than its filling, a rare blemish that’s forgiven by a salad of farro, salsa verde and anchovy under a fine storm of Parmesan. (Of course it’s dressed with an egg.) Truth be told, evenings are my preferred time to visit Elle, the pride and joy of Mount Pleasant that replaced the beloved Heller’s Bakery (but kept its outdoor neon sign, illuminating only the “elle” in “Heller’s”). The small menu, by chef Brad Deboy, formerly of Blue Duck Tavern, revels in whimsy and flavor. Chopped scallops with tufts of cultured cream and minced scallions is a ceviche that acts like a dip (it even comes with potato chips). Before Elle, the thought of fried honeyed chicken on cantaloupe flecked with chile flakes never crossed my mind. Now, I’m hooked. “Finished?” a server asks a companion. “I think I’m going to lick this plate,” he replies, holding onto the rim of some grandma china for fear of leaving even a speck of sweet pepper cavatelli. Creamy with ricotta, the pasta is finished with garlic butter and exquisite fermented chile bread crumbs that Deboy ought to patent. Bench seating in the snug rear dining room, which is also LOUD, doesn’t encourage hanging around, but the fudgy chocolate bar garnished with apricots and pistachios, vegan and decadent, will make you glad you did.
The following review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2018 Spring Dining Guide as No. 1 on a list of the year’s 10 best new restaurants.
Elle delights, day and night alike
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.
The Top 10 new restaurants of 2018:
The following review was originally published April 13, 2018.
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.
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.
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.