The best place to dispatch Conroy’s handiwork is in one of nine compact greenhouses lined up outside Lutèce. Like the creperie Cafe Bonaparte before it, the space is owned by Omar Popal, his sister Fatima, and their parents, father Zubair and mother Shamim. You might be familiar with their hospitality; the family also owns the charming Afghan retreat Lapis in Adams Morgan and the German beer hall the Berliner near the Georgetown waterfront.
Before you tear into me on the wisdom of dining in an enclosed space right now, let me assure you I spent time there only with the guy in my bubble, and the two of us never came close to staying the 90 minutes that a host said we had to enjoy the structure, which requires a $25-per-person deposit. We also took liberal advantage of the gratis hand sanitizer on the table (beware, the gel gets cold), and we made sure our masks were on whenever we saw a server approach from outside. A stubborn door was a bit of a relief, in that it didn’t close tight, allowing for better airflow, the chill of which was tempered by a small electric heater.
The greenhouse is snug and stylish. All-weather carpets pave the floor, flowers brighten the table, and an illuminated glass globe dangles from the peaked roof. Who cares about the angry horn honks from feet away on Wisconsin Avenue? You’re out of the house! The little retreats stand close enough to one another that you can overhear your neighbors’ conversations. Save any top secrets, dirty jokes or spoiler alerts for somewhere else.
“There are no bad choices,” an enthusiastic server tells us. Inwardly, I groan at his neutrality, but only until he ticks off some firsts among equals, including a salad starring sweet, brilliant, Badger Flame beets partnered with smoked labne, and steak tartare. Conroy chops raw flank steak from the pedigreed D’Artagnan, mixing it with capers, green peppercorns and a fermented hot sauce he makes himself. The tartare is spread into a round and dappled with an aioli, yellow and spicy with Dijon mustard. The burn in each bite is pleasing, and persistent.
I beg to differ with my first waiter. There is a lesser dish at Lutèce: French onion soup. The staple looks enticing, served in a raised bowl with a molten cap of Emmental and Gruyere cheeses. Dig below the surface, though, and the broth, supposedly made with beef broth and cognac, has been wan eating both times I’ve tried it.
That just means more room for pretty much everything else on the menu.
“I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel,” says the chef, 35. I appreciate his honesty and his craftsmanship. Fresh tarragon and Comte cheese inform his soft gnocchi, gathered with diced squash and feathery maitake mushrooms and finished with more grated cheese, which melts to form a delicious web over the dish. Part of the allure of the roast chicken is its spiced kombu brine, a flavor pump bolstered by a basting of herb butter as the entree cooks. I’m fond of the flaky poached cod, too, sauced with dill oil and horseradish.
Conroy also has a nice way with vegetables. His roasted sweet potato, sliced into fingers and arranged with almonds, blue cheese and dates, is akin to something I like to assemble from remnants in my refrigerator. Critics, they’re just like chefs! Brussels sprouts are uncommonly good; blame it on the duck fat with which the little cabbages are roasted. Finer still are the french fries, tossed in garlic confit. Some time in the freezer ensures they stay crisp at the table, not that they stick around long. The piece de resistance, however, is quartered napa cabbage, singed over Japanese charcoal, spritzed with lime juice, dressed with tahini and showered with toasted sesame seeds. Yes, we’ll take home the leftovers.
The novelty on the list is a $42 appetizer. Picture a stack of Lincoln Logs — shredded potato fried in duck fat — drizzled with creme fraiche and outfitted with fresh dill and river caviar (buttery Kaluga, a hybrid). The combination of the twice-fried potatoes, cool dressing and shimmering roe is plenty of decadence for two, one of whom breaks out in a smile when he recognizes the flavor of the golden potatoes. “McDonald’s hash browns!” my companion cries. Sure enough, they taste like Throwback Thursday. When I share the exchange with Conroy, he sounds unsurprised. “I like food that has a reference point.”
I appreciate food served by thoughtful overseers, another of Lutèce’s strong suits. “Service is included on the bill,” a waiter lets us know as we wrap up a night of easy banter with him. The 22 percent hospitality charge feels right, not just because our server has taken very good care of us, but because the pandemic has revealed inequities in the way restaurant workers are compensated.
Washington’s Lutèce is no relation to New York’s bastion of French refinement, which closed 17 years ago but made subsequent cameos on AMC’s “Mad Men.” Omar Popal says he likes the name’s backstory (“Any French speaker will know Lutèce is the old name for Paris”) and used it to set the place apart from the masculine-sounding Bonaparte. Lutèce, a mere 33 seats, has been remodeled to include an open kitchen and custom-made mirrors. From the outside, the inside looks cozy.
In safer times, I hope to linger in the dining room over dessert. Every one I’ve tried is something I’d be happy to order again. Scoops of dark chocolate ganache sprinkled with a crumble of baked sweetened crepe? Mais oui. Rice pudding strays from the nursery recipe with accents of quince and almond, and poundcake draped in a creamy lemon sauce goes architectural with poppy-seeded meringue tiles.
Lutèce offers a little something for everyone. And a lot to like, wherever you happen to eat it.
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Lutèce 1522 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-333-8830. lutecedc.com. Open for dinner inside and outside, plus takeout, 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; for brunch 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Prices: Dinner appetizers $4 to $42; main courses $18 to $34. No delivery. Accessibility: Neither the narrow dining room, fronted by a step, nor the snug greenhouses are wheelchair-accessible.