Ben Achour, who helped open the West End establishment as a food runner in 1999 and rose through the ranks to become general manager and sommelier, turned the lights on in Marcel’s dining room, put on some music and went through the pre-service rituals of polishing knives and glasses. “I was really itching to go back to work,” Ben Achour says. “I missed the engagement.” Before he left, he poured himself a glass of red burgundy, sat in the middle of the room and shed some tears. “I wanted to feel normal.”
That makes a lot of us.
Here I am, then, back on familiar turf, a restaurant I’ve followed as long as it’s been pouring champagne and serving boudin blanc. Out of deference to his mature clientele, Wiedmaier waited until October to reopen the doors of the French-Belgian outpost, named for his eldest son and among the Washington restaurants I consider a hall of fame standard-bearer. Spanish guitar music wafts through the air, top-draw cocktails land on freshly ironed linens and dinner commences with not one but two treats from the chef. Short wands of fried phyllo stuffed with chopped mushrooms and earthy snails crackle in the mouth. Save for the hand sanitizer pump at the host stand and the masked staff patrolling the room, dinner channels the Before Times.
Or close to it. Since the pandemic, restaurants have been forced to trim their selections. Wiedmaier says he’s dropped eight to 10 dishes from the menu, which encourages diners to compose their own four- to six-course dinners. You can order a la carte, but when three courses would add up to $122 and the four-course price is $110, why would you? Order by 6 p.m., and you’re rewarded with a three-course list for $80.
Hungry for normalcy, I ask for the signature boudin blanc to start. It is as I remember it, plump with pheasant, foie gras and chicken; rich with cream and truffle jus; burnished with a sear; and dressed for the season with braised pears and bacon jam.
If you’re not falling for sausage as a first course, spring for something with seafood. Lobster poached in butter and arranged with fennel puree and baby carrots is delicious if routine. The beauty award goes to the scallop tartine, a puff pastry treasure box filled with sweet seared scallops and potatoes whipped with olive oil. More magic — crunch, flavor — comes by way of a thin sail of crisp Mangalitsa pork, from an Old World breed of pigs native to Hungary.
You’d know what time of year it is simply by the chef’s choice of meat and fowl. Lean venison is cooked to keep its ruddy hue in a cast-iron skillet, finished with thyme, garlic and butter and sliced to form a circle around nutty-tasting wild rice and sauteed mushrooms. Brined duck breast glistens with a lacquer of honey and herbs. Like the venison, it shows up in thick red slices atop braised red cabbage and near quenelles of spiced apple butter. Each bite trumpets fall.
Saucing remains a priority in the kitchen, which finds chef de cuisine Jenn Castaneda-Jones working a safe distance from her boss. Duck jus and red wine are cooked down to a heady essence for the entree, whose plate rim is streaked with circles of balsamic reduction.
Order a la carte, and unexpected vegetables appear. By turns sweet and smoky, a bowl of diced potatoes, carrots, red peppers and green beans with charred cauliflower is a welcome companion to Marcel’s rich cooking.
Ben Achour demonstrates the value of a dedicated sommelier. Listening to him preview a bottle of St.-Joseph as he transfers the French syrah into a crystal decanter has us mentally sniffing “hay,” “mushrooms” and “iron,” and his time at the table includes a tip for washing delicate decanters: Fill the vessel with hot water, rock salt and white wine vinegar, let it sit for 15 minutes, then rinse with hot water. Before he departs, the Tunisian native says he’d welcome a work-friendlier mask. “I just need a slit for tasting wine!”
The low-lit, champagne-colored dining room and lounge look the same, albeit with fewer tables. What were once pools of space between parties are now oceans of separation, eight to nine feet by the owner’s count. One early weeknight, two of us had the entire lounge, a stage set of arched ceilings and illuminated spirits, to ourselves. We passed on adding to our meal truffles and osetra caviar, priced respectively at $45 for three grams and $120 an ounce, blini and fixings included. Frankly, the most coveted luxury these days has little to do with food and everything to do with comfort — mental as much as physical.
Speaking of special touches, I was sad to see the piano idle midweek but cheered to hear it’s played on Fridays and Saturdays. Wiedmaier says the music summons the pre-covid days, and he’s right. Marcel’s popular pre-theater menu has been suspended, however, at least until the Kennedy Center reopens. Gone with the deal is the driver who shuttled diners to the performance center and back.
A reduced staff means people are taking on extra chores. Wiedmaier, for instance, is making desserts. “I’m not a pastry chef,” he says. Even so, the few things he makes feel like they came from the same kitchen as everything that preceded them. The most original marries sponge cake and passionfruit coulis, a confection finished with black sesame seeds and a ring of creme anglaise. After four or more courses, you want something invigorating. This is it.
My visits to Marcel’s make me realize that what I miss most about regular trips to restaurants since March is not so much the food, but face-to-face hospitality — the detailed descriptions of what you’re about to eat, the wine banter, the discrete check-ins, someone pulling a chair out for you to slide in. Even the greatest takeout lacks the human touch. Further, someone else’s dining room, however modest or grand, is a nice change of pace for those who are cooking most meals at home or ordering in.
Twice I planned to eat outside, and twice the weather changed my good intentions. Dining early at night, early in the week, only with members of my bubble and in such a seemingly safe environment alleviated some of my concerns about eating inside. (Marcel’s offers curbside takeout, but from a limited menu.)
“Who knows what’s going to happen in January?” Wiedmaier says. “There are so many unknowns.”
This much is true at the moment: Even a struggling version of Marcel’s is something to hold dear.
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Marcel’s by Robert Wiedmaier 2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-296-1166. marcelsdc.com. Open for curbside pickup, indoor dining and weather-dependent outdoor seating 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 4:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Four courses $110, five courses $130, six courses $150, a la carte appetizers $25, entrees $78. Early-bird three-course menu $80. Two-course curbside takeout menu $52. No delivery. Accessibility: Two sets of double doors precede the host stand; restrooms are wheelchair-accessible.