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Dauphine’s pays respect to New Orleans with top-notch cooking and cocktails

The busy main dining room at Dauphine’s in downtown Washington. (Deb Lindsey/for The Washington Post)
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New Orleans chef Kristen Essig had no intention of moving to Washington when she flew up in November for face time with the principals behind Long Shot Hospitality ahead of the launch of Dauphine’s, the restaurant group’s long-anticipated nod to the Big Easy.

“I saw it as a four-day vacation,” says Essig, who had recently split, personally and professionally, from the co-owner and co-chef of Coquette, one of the most beloved restaurants in New Orleans.

Three things sold her on a new restaurant in a city other than the one she called home for the past two decades. Walking in, it was love at first sight, and meeting the owners in person reinforced the good vibes. (The popular Salt Line in the Navy Yard is part of their group.) The chef says she ended up looking at 24 apartments in three days, ultimately falling for Mount Pleasant, where her now-landlord knew the names of all his neighbors and the friendly “porch culture” reminded her of New Orleans.

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Now that Dauphine’s has opened, after more stops and starts than the Tokyo Olympics, I’m here to say, get thee there. Located where The Washington Post once stood on 15th Street NW, Dauphine’s nails so many delicious details, it’s as if you’re enjoying them in the city that more or less put them on the map.

Good sourcing helps. The fish amandine gets shored up with long-grain rice from Prairie Ronde, the fab “peacemaker” po’ boy gets its distinct crackle from Leidenheimer bread, and the pralines that end a meal taste as much of butter and pecans as brown sugar.

The Dauphine’s design adds to the you-are-there feel. Wrought iron stretches over the part of the main dining room where charcuterie boards and seafood platters are whipped up, and a jungle of plants around the perimeter lends lushness. An outdoor fountain splashes in a back garden. Named for one of the French Quarter’s best-known streets, the restaurant manages the neat trick of evoking one of the best food cities in the country without going the Disney route. There’s no mistaking the newcomer for, say, Commander’s Palace.

Essig isn’t the only one with chops here. Chef Kyle Bailey of the Salt Line, a partner in the project, is making charcuterie that ranks as some of Washington’s best right now. I’m particularly drawn to his Sazerac-cured bresaola and a whip of “banh mi” chicken liver mousse that acknowledges the Vietnamese influence on modern New Orleans cooking with its pickled vegetables spiced with star anise and cardamom.

The restaurant wouldn’t have the spirit it does without a strong drinks program, either. Cheers for Neal Bodenheimer, founder of the esteemed Cure in New Orleans and a longtime friend of one of the five partners of Long Shot Hospitality. Bodenheimer hasn’t relocated to Washington, but you can taste his presence in a raft of well-made cocktails, thanks to beverage director Donato Alvarez, a Salt Line veteran who has been collaborating with Bodenheimer since the idea for Dauphine’s was hatched in 2018.

Several thoughts shaped the drinks list, a three-page read enhanced with concise background notes. Bodenheimer knew there would be cocktails, such as the Sazerac and Ramos gin fizz, people would seek out. He also wanted to shine a light on “great cocktails that people didn’t know,” like the State Street, which dates to 1937 and creator Stanley Clisby Arthur. His gin fizz, made with juniper-forward Tanqueray and a cap of egg white, has been updated to include pineapple syrup. Bodenheimer also incorporated libations he thinks “needed to exist.” Meet Absinthe Ricky, a marriage between New Orleans’s revered spirit and Washington’s acclaimed cocktail.

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Talk to the principals and you hear the word “respect” a lot. Everyone wants to do their part to make sure the food in particular is accorded appreciation. Rockfish amandine proves the point. “There’s nothing to hide behind,” says Essig of the classic, which she sometimes builds around tilefish. The almonds in the brown butter sauce have to be “just perfect” — bronzed but not burned — and same for the balance of salt and acid (lemon juice is added to stop the cooking process). If there’s a perfect dish here, it’s this one, champed up with crisp green beans and a base of pedigreed rice from Louisiana.

“I’ve got 50 timers in the kitchen,” says Essig, who is exaggerating by about half. Timers assure dishes aren’t cooked too long.

Essig knows she won’t please everybody. “Gumbo is such an extremely personal thing to so many people,” she says, adding that the classic is “a little different each time,” depending on things as variable as the thickness of the roux and the concentration of shellfish stock. Sharing space in her bowl of crab, shrimp and oysters is a scoop of potato salad, punched up with raw onions and mustard. (Ask and you can get rice instead.) Like the chef, I appreciate the texture and the acid the potato salad adds, if not its tepid temperature.

One of multiple stars among the large plates is paneed rabbit: a half rabbit that’s brined, pressed and breaded on its way to becoming schnitzel framed with beets, greens and a mustard-and-sherry sauce. (Yep, the centerpiece could pass for chicken.) Another score: head-on shrimp in a dark pool of earthy birch beer, rosemary, cracked black pepper and what Essig calls “woozy,” or housemade Worcestershire sauce. While the menu is large by pandemic standards, Essig says nothing new is added unless it uses what’s already in her kitchen. (The crunchy coat on the paneed rabbit is from crushed leftover po’ boy rolls.)

Garnishes are as considered as anything else here. In addition to pickled vegetables, the Vietnamese-inspired chicken liver mousse is enhanced with powdered black satsuma from fruit Essig brought up from New Orleans. And a seemingly simple plate of oysters spaghetti, sauced with a combination of cream, vermouth and seafood juices, is finished with toasted breadcrumbs made memorable with grated garlic, Creole seasonings, onions and more. Note to self: Get the recipe. The topper is a divine way to dress up a dish.

The grandest dish is duck jambalaya, coaxed from seemingly every part of the bird: breast aged more than two weeks, cracklings for crunch and liver for a pleasant mineral tang. A server stirs and stirs the rice so that every bite delivers a warm concert of flavors. At $85, it’s the costliest dish on the menu, but easily feeds three. I love the addition of soft-cooked cabbage and jalapeño-spiked duck sausage on the plate.

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Dauphine’s bread service demonstrates why some restaurants charge for it: Craftsmanship and good ingredients aren’t gratis. Pastry chef Joy Razzo, formerly with Buttercream Bakeshop, is the skill behind the $10 assortment of finger-length baguettes, sweet potato brioche and buttermilk biscuits, as well as the baked Alaska, packed with coffee ice cream and yellow cake and as flamboyant as Mardi Gras when its meringue dome is ignited at the table. A lemon ice box pie aces the flavor profile, if not the look, of the old-fashioned dessert. I was disappointed to find the elements deconstructed on the plate.

Having trouble getting in? Join the club. Dauphine’s isn’t just one of the hottest tickets in town, it’s holding back on reservations for the time being. Hence the unoccupied tables you’re apt to see, despite the expanse of the restaurant, which can seat, inside and out, nearly 400 people at full capacity. Essig says she’s looking to add happy hour, lunch and brunch, but only when the team thinks it can make each event its own reason for coming — with a distinct menu. Meanwhile, there’s no getting bored with the space. Three visits in three different areas of the restaurant provided me three diverting perspectives.

Star rankings aren’t back, but I’m increasingly comfortable adding caveats to reviews. Not even a stiff Sazerac can hide a few flaws, including occasional oversalting and beignets with doughy centers. While the wine list has some nice companions to the cooking, it seems to be vying for the attention of deep-pocketed moguls more than mere mortals. Even wines by the glass average nearly $18. Those disinclined to spend three digits for a bottle might consider a lightly spiced valpolicella or fresh beaujolais, both of which nicely bridge a lot of the food.

Even so, I found myself nodding when an especially gracious server said of Essig, “She makes it easy for me to do my job.”

The best compliment a critic can pay a restaurant is to say they would return on their own time and dime. My reaction to Dauphine’s: In a heartbeat.

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Dauphine’s  1100 15th St. NW. 202-758-3785. dauphinesdc.com. Open for outdoor and indoor dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Prices: Appetizers $13 to $21, main courses $23 to $85 (duck jambalaya for two). Accessibility: No barriers at the entrance. A lift in the bar allows access to the main dining room. Restrooms are ADA-compliant.

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