The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide as No. 5 on Tom’s Top 10.
No chef can replace the memory of the late, great Michel Richard or the late, great Citronelle in Georgetown. But if anyone comes close, it’s his protege and fellow Frenchman, Cedric Maupillier. In dish after dish at Convivial, a restaurant as joyous as it sounds, Maupillier either turns the routine into something wonderful, or makes us laugh, or both. One of the most tempting roulades in memory wraps sheer, sumac-seasoned zucchini around whipped goat cheese and roasted tomato; atop the cylinder is a stripe of baba ghanouj sprinkled with tiny croutons and micro-basil. And one of the most fetching fish is rainbow trout perched on bright green julienned snow peas, an entree shimmering with orange roe on its surface. Meanwhile, a swirl of hummus serves as a base for spicy lamb sausage topped with a glistening garden of pickled vegetables. Maupillier wants diners to understand what they’re eating, hence the food lexicon — two dozen definitions long — that accompanies his menu. Really, all you need to know is that this is some of the most beguiling cooking in town.
Convivial: 801 O St. NW. 202-525-2870. convivialdc.com.
Prices: Medium plates $16-$21.
Sound check: 75 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The Top 10:
The following review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2016 Spring Dining Guide as No. 3 on a list of the year’s 10 best new restaurants.
No chef in the city plays better jokes on diners than Cedric Maupillier, whose French-American (or is it American-French?) menu finds escargots “in a blanket” and coq au vin that’s both braised and fried. No matter how much you think you know about food, you’re apt to learn something at Convivial, which promotes plates that are neither small nor large and turns classics on their head. Leeks Dijonnaise, for instance, materialize as a cake of sliced steamed leeks, sharpened with mustard and carpeted with chopped egg, fried capers, micro greens and tiny croutons. The salad, beautiful and luscious, keeps excellent company. Peers include scallop boudin blanc with the texture of mousse and acorn squash dressed with shaved coconut and seasoned with vadouvan, the latter a medium-size dish that reminds you how much fun vegetables can be. Convivial delivers on the promise of its name.
The following review was originally published March 9, 2016.
Convivial review: Cedric Maupillier brings diners on a delicious voyage
Some chefs describe dishes in such detail, their menus could double as cookbooks.
Cedric Maupillier, 39, is not that kind of host. The pilot of Convivial, one of several exciting reasons to book dinner in Shaw right now, begs diners to ask questions and dares patrons to take the road less taken.
No matter how much you know about food, you can be forgiven for scratching your head as you peruse the chef’s creations. Escargots “in a blanket”? Fried chicken in the same breath as “coq au vin,” a classic French braise? While the choices are spread across five categories, from “nibbles” to dessert, the majority fall under the designation of either “cold” or “hot.” Larger than appetizers and smaller than entrees, the portions are a refreshing departure from small plates and further evidence that Convivial isn’t dinner as usual.
“I want to force people to travel a little with me,” says Maupillier, a French native turned recent U.S. citizen whose credits include Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan and Central Michel Richard downtown.
Buckle up. Convivial is a trip. Combinations that are new to you will make you wonder why no one else thought of them before while dishes you think you know are offered in such unexpected ways as to make you see them in a fresh light.
Leeks dijonnaise speaks to both points. Using slices of steamed leeks sharpened with mustard vinaigrette, Maupillier shapes the salad into a loose cake, which he paves with fried capers, chopped eggs, itty bitty croutons and microgreens. Not only is this the prettiest version of the classic bistro staple I have yet to encounter, every bite packs in the complete soft-crisp, hot-cold, bold-subtle recipe.
The breakout starter at Mintwood Place: snails hidden in hush puppies (still on the menu and still a song to the South, by the way). Convivial expands on the notion with the aforementioned escargots: sauteed snails, pureed spinach and chicken mousse bound in egg roll wrappers and fried to an audible crackle. A dip in melted butter and lemon zest hastens the departure of the snack.
Michel Richard, Maupillier’s one-time boss, found fame in dueling textures and gussied-up fast food. The work of the student now rivals that of the master. Witness Convivial’s lightly breaded, twice-fried chicken, Maupillier’s spin on Korean fried chicken and, says the chef, his attempt to create a buzzy dish. Done! The explosive crunch of the coating is picked up by my neighbor while the chicken, draped in the winey, onion-sweetened flavors associated with coq au vin, directs the taste buds to tap dance. A bed of crushed potatoes, shallots and garlic and smoky batons of bacon round out the fun.
While the fried chicken was conceived as a talker, several other plates could easily fill the role. Scallop boudin blanc is a seafood sausage with the lightness of mousse and a twinkle from trout roe, an attraction improbably and lusciously served on a backdrop of julienned snow peas and winey sauerkraut. Veal tartare, pink and lush, strikes a dramatic pose with filings of bright orange bottarga and thin olive crackers dividing the dish. The delightful creaminess is explained by the chef’s use of a runny French cheese in the minced meat; its delicate minerality comes by way of strategically placed oyster leaves on the tartare.
This is food served with a knowing wink rather than a boastful shout. And I appreciate Maupillier’s use of a few unsung local ingredients, including white perch and blue catfish, the latter in a satisfying seafood stew. Turkey leg confit makes me wonder why the bird doesn’t see more action outside holidays. Shreds of turkey tossed with a house-made ranch dressing, toasted pecans and bitter endive — now there’s something for home cooks to consider the day after Thanksgiving. As is the case with a number of dishes, the turkey salad is shielded from full view, behind a sheer outsized crouton. Maupillier also masks his port-kissed calf’s liver, which comes with a pink cover of Basque country ham that parts to reveal a slab of glistening organ meat and crushed roasted vegetables.
If Maupillier asks diners to come to the table prepared, he also listens to what they want, which explains the considerable space he devotes to vegetarian dishes that don’t taste like afterthoughts — or look like them, either. Shaved coconut over acorn squash, seasoned with vadouvan, savory pistachio cake and mustard greens ignited with lime, suggests a blizzard in the tropics. In another meat-free novelty, crisp sunflower chips dress up a little casserole of barley pilaf, each scoop lightened with sunny preserved lemon and tangy goat cheese.
Not every plate returns clean. Pot au feu mingles tender beef, softer tongue and tendon with the mouthfeel of warm gummy bears in a clove-scented but over-salted oxtail broth. Honestly, the best part of the bowl is its raft of toasted bread spread with bone marrow.
Desserts hew to a more traditional path. Warm, sticky toffee pudding with maple ice cream is pretty much the satisfaction you expect, and key lime pie is distinguished from the lot out there with a crust made with the Belgian spice cookie called speculoos.
How to improve on vanilla creme brulee? Convivial accessorizes the workhorse with a crisp disk of “black” meringue, its tint courtesy of cocoa.
The No. 1 complaint at Mintwood, where the chef retains an interest, is the noise. The sound level at Convivial will never be confused with that of a library, but a diner has to appreciate a restaurant that tried to address noise before rather than after opening.
Of the new crop of places to eat, Convivial, spread across several small dining rooms, is the least concerned with its appearance. But I agree with the chef when he says the Christmas-colored lights make him happy to come to work every day.
And the service takes to heart the name of the restaurant. If the chef senses someone in the restaurant could use some TLC, he says he enjoys “putting my red nose and big shoes” in the dining room.
Maupillier challenges assumptions and bucks conventions. In the process of advancing some causes — but never taking off more than he can chew — the chef also feeds diners exceptionally