No out-of-town chef in recent memory has tried as hard as Daniel Boulud to win over Washington.
Best known for Daniel, his refined French dining experience in New York, Boulud threw a party for the local chef community three months before his DBGB Kitchen and Bar even opened in CityCenterDC in September. To distinguish the menu here from the original DBGB in the Big Apple, the Michelin-starred chef created a few dishes with nods to the Mid-Atlantic, foremost the Crabbie, a hamburger topped with a crab cake.
Also revealing is the way Boulud chose to decorate the main dining room of his 15th restaurant, “where the French brasserie meets the American tavern,” according to the slogan. Flanking diners on two sides are shelves holding more than 100 white plates, signed by chefs as diverse as Cristeta Comerford of the White House and CNN’s Anthony Bourdain. The display acknowledges both Boulud’s lofty perch in the culinary firmament and the market’s affection for brag walls.
The one-sheet menu reads, at first glance, like a lot of other bistro lists. Steak tartare? Check. Coq au vin? Oui.
The most enticing real estate on the list celebrates the wares of the charcuterie maven for the Boulud empire, Aurélien Dufour. My multiple tastes of his handiwork included a springy boudin blanc with pork jus and an earthy blood sausage set on buttery whipped potatoes. The samples have me anticipating excursions to Vermont (pork fused with cheddar), Beaujolais (pork flavored with red wine) and other ports of call.
Among the “Bites to Share” is ouefs mimosa, a boring, if glittery, riff on deviled eggs garnished with caviar. Calamari fried in beer batter is stiff eating, but I appreciate the fillips of lime cream and pickled peppers. Sails of chickpea socca decorate a pleasant appetizer of sweet and sour eggplant, a vegetarian and gluten-free option.
DBGB’s signature hamburger is a letdown, not because of the juicy beef patty or the potato bun, but because of the damp, barely-there pancake of seafood in the high-rise. Everyone wants more of the fried chicken with collard greens, however. Sweet with honey and biting with cayenne, the juicy, brined chicken gets an extra kick from the accompanying house-made barbecue sauce. (But watermelon chunks on the plate? In autumn?)
Like the food, prepared by executive chef Ed Scarpone, 27, the service is mixed. Good cheer and attention are followed by constant interruptions and a server who wants to drop off dishes we haven’t ordered. Both nights I stop in, however, the suave Boulud is in the house, chatting up diners and even pausing at the bar for a clutch of suits eager to capture the moment on their smartphones.
Pending further investigation, I already count two showstoppers.
One is savory. Caper-showered sauteed fluke circled with a garland of crumbled cauliflower, dandelion tendrils and grape slivers is an elegant tribute to the Chesapeake. Wisely, Scarpone, a six-year veteran of the Boulud empire, serves the local fish on the bone and with its skin.
The other arresting performance is sweet. Baked Alaska with a core of raspberry sorbet is ignited at the table with Chartreuse — and a blow torch. “I worked at DBGB in New York,” says the manager handling the fire. “I only burned a table once.” (Wood, not guests, she implies.) The effect is like eating a cordial. The side show is also contagious, repeated as many as 20 times a night. Says Scarpone, baked Alaska is “our No. 1 bestseller.”
931 H St. NW. 202-695-7660. dbgb.com/dc. Burgers and entrees, $15 to $68.