David Deshaies always wanted to offer comfort food with a spin as the owner of his debut restaurant. A protege of the late French tastemaker Michel Richard, the chef also knew the effort wouldn't be a cheap-eats destination, certainly not with free-range chicken and domestic Wagyu beef on his menu.
Hence the name of his long-awaited restaurant beside the convention center: Unconventional Diner, designed as two eateries — one open just for dinner, the other for breakfast and lunch — and connected by a cocktail bar.
The evening-only dining room opened last month, and it comes with an industrial look (cement floors, undressed ceiling) punctuated here and there with what looks like graffiti. The focus, in other words, is clearly on the plate, and by now, Washingtonians know to expect small wonders from the creative Deshaies, who worked for Richard at both the much-missed four-star Citronelle in Georgetown and the breezy Central Michel Richard downtown, where he retains a partnership.
Vegetarians have an advocate in Deshaies, who sprinkles 10 or so meatless notions throughout his menu of snacks, shareables, "supper" and sides. Ease in with tempura-crisped kale nachos, striped with lemony cumin yogurt and red pepper jelly for colorful effect, or crackling spring rolls stuffed with shiitake mushrooms. The latter snack comes with what the menu calls a "Franch" dressing: a riff on ranch, based on fromage blanc and lots of tarragon and dill.
Of course there's meatloaf, and of course, it's nothing like anyone's mom's. Deshaies blends together beef, pork and veal, along with plenty of diced vegetables and some Gruyere, which gives each bite of meatloaf a welcome juiciness. Topping the loaf is a glaze made with ketchup, honey and Sriracha, and a garnish of Chinese long beans; a moat of morel mushroom gravy nudges the slab into fine-dining turf.
"Is everything delicious?" an overeager manager inquires every time he drops by the table. Presumptuous question, if you ask me. In fact, chicken Parmesan is ordinary in comparison to the restaurant's abundant draws, which include squid-ink linguine topped with a fistful of sweet jumbo lump crab, and chicken pot pie rethought as crouton-size golden cubes gathered on a nest of shredded cabbage. Each perfect, breaded nugget hides luscious chicken and carrots in roux. Swanson's can only dream.
Unconventional Diner has a second asset in its pastry chef. She's Ana Deshaies, the chef's wife and the talent behind the baked goods. (The two met at Citronelle.) When the daytime restaurant opens, later this month, she'll be making the croissants and other breads in a separate kitchen. At present, diners can enjoy her fluffy tres leches cake offered with a starburst of fruit and moist, uber-rich carrot cake paved with white chocolate tinged with carrot juice.
In tribute to Richard, who died in 2016, Deshaies serves his mentor's famous 72-hour short ribs — "the exact same recipe," down to its raisin-peppercorn sauce, says the chef. A perfectionist like his one-time employer, Deshaies goes so far as to stage the sliced beef in the same copper pans used at Citronelle.
"I loved Michel," says his protege.
Something tells me Richard would have loved Washington's most unconventional diner.
1207 Ninth St. NW. 202-847-0122. unconventionaldiner.com. "Supper" items, $15 to $89 (short ribs for two or more).