The following review appears in The Washington Post's 2017 Fall Dining Guide.
Costumed in curved red leather booths and a chandelier that doubles as fine art, Mirabelle lives up to the promise of its French name: wondrous beauty. Patrolled by some of the best servers in town, the glam restaurant has the pampering thing down, too. Layer on the esteemed kitchen talent — Frank Ruta and pastry chef Aggie Chin of the much-missed Palena — and you've got, well, a restaurant that can be wonderful and not so much, sometimes at the same meal. Ruta has a Midas touch with rabbit, seafood and classical notions; keep an eye out for terrines, wild fish and consommé. Chin is the beautician behind the great-tasting pavlovas, fruit tarts and vacherins. But some meals underwhelm with their size or the sense something similar could be had elsewhere, for less. The certainty at Mirabelle is the price tag. Hope someone else is picking up the check.
Mirabelle: 900 16th St. NW. 202-506-3833. mirabelledc.com.
Prices: Mains $42-$46.
Sound check: 73 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following review was originally published Sept. 20, 2017.
Mirabelle, a gem in the making, loses some of its luster
If you're a diner of a certain vintage, you're apt to remember (and miss) the late Palena in Cleveland Park. The restaurant saw former White House chef Frank Ruta in the kitchen and a few dishes on the menu that no other restaurant did as well. His salads looked like still lifes, and his consommé ... well, few but Ruta went to the trouble. He was the chef other chefs aspired to be. His roast chicken was the bird home cooks could only dream of replicating.
Palena was actually two destinations under one roof: a clattery cafe and a (slightly) dressier dining room in the back. The service had some issues, and the interior lacked a designer's touch, but near-perfect food at moderate prices was the primary reason customers flocked to the address. It was headline news, then, when Ruta, citing mounting debts, announced he was closing three years ago after a 14-year ride.
The tastemaker later moved to the Grill Room inside the Capella hotel in Georgetown, where the food, in the end, was more correct than gotta-have-it-again. The 24/7 needs of a boutique inn, some of us figured, might have been a distraction.
So you could practically hear the champagne corks popping off around Washington when the chef delivered the news last fall: With the help of some deep pockets, notably those of serial restaurateur Hakan Ilhan, Ruta would open his dream space downtown, two blocks from where he once cooked for the Carters, the Reagans and the first set of Bushes. Sweeter still, his longtime pastry chef, Aggie Chin, would be along for the ride at Mirabelle, which translates from French to "wondrous beauty." When Jennifer Knowles, a veteran of the Inn at Little Washington, signed on as head of service and wine, everyone predicted a hit.
Food worshipers began comparing Mirabelle's cloudlike boudin blanc to what had been their standard-bearer, the one at Marcel's in the West End. People with only a passing interest in the restaurant scene were talking about Mirabelle's lunch-only ham sandwich, a $26 indulgence crafted from cured Berkshire pork and a baguette that takes two days to make. (It's as rich as it sounds and best shared for that reason.)
Mirabelle made such a strong impression, I tagged it the best new restaurant in my spring dining guide. I don't assign stars to previews, but Mirabelle seemed to be on a four-star trajectory.
And then I returned a few times to find a restaurant that I sometimes didn't recognize. The room remained one of the city's most alluring (walnut and marble and leather, oh my!), and the attention never flagged. But more than one dish didn't fit the typical Ruta profile for seasonal reliance and unerring good taste.
As in, the only reason to order strip loin for dinner is for the lacy-soft hash brown potatoes that accompany the crimson pieces of unmemorable beef, a centerpiece further undone by cooked radishes and carrots when the glories of summer were beckoning. Four thin slices of lamb, edged in charred onion jam and arranged with a few ruffles of lettuce, are pleasing enough, but more of an appetizer than a main course salad selling for $27. The promised vegetable "crepe" is hidden beneath the lamb and brings to mind a stamp of spongy injera.
First-world quibbles? Let me point out that dinner entrees average $43. High prices elicit high expectations. Spring and summer also brought heavier dishes than I would have thought.
Let me also say, I've had lovely meals at Mirabelle. Summer found me swooning over buckwheat-and-rice-flour-crusted soft-shell crabs — Ruta has a fondness for the grain — accented with a delicate curry sauce, a brilliant taste of southern India. Wild turbot, the prize of a later tasting menu, was draped at the table with sauce Americaine (tomato, wine, cayenne) and nearly upstaged by the entree's sea-imbued mussel custard.
Fish and seafood are my preferred destinations at Mirabelle, which is not to say I didn't appreciate encountering a classic like crab-topped veal Oscar or guinea hen served as a juniper-sauced breast alongside a plump sausage made with leg meat and foie gras (and a crack too much pepper). Beef tri-tip braised in syrah and presented with crisp, creamy-centered polenta sticks went down like Sunday supper in the hands of Escoffier.
Chin is one of the best things to happen to pastry in Washington since Roland Mesnier was spinning wonders from sugar and butter at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. I pledge allegiance to her many-layered crepe cake and elegant fruit tarts, one day golden raspberries arranged on citrus curd in a band of pâté sucree (sweet pastry). But, she, too, has sent some head-scratchers out of the kitchen. Black Forest cake is a classic best left as it is. The twist I sampled at Mirabelle was presented in bits and pieces and Valrhona chocolate squiggles: deconstructed, in other words. Et tu, Aggie?
Shortly after I completed my review visits at Mirabelle, and with a photographer scheduled to record the restaurant, I got The Call, or rather, The Text. Without going into specifics, Knowles wanted to inform me that she was parting ways with her employer.
The news gave me pause. Mirabelle without Knowles sounded like Ben minus Jerry. Then again, she hired and trained the dining room staff, and I have to believe they won't unlearn their lines or forget their moves in her absence. Pros don't let their guards down just because they get a new boss, or so I'm betting. And here's hoping bartender Zach Faden, who took my request for something tart and spicy and refreshing, and turned it into a pisco cocktail with earthy rhum agricole, lime and hellfire shrub, sticks around for future asks. (Knowles has since taken a position with top chef Mike Isabella, who hired her to be the general manager of the future Requin at the District's Wharf and oversee wine and service throughout his restaurant collection.)
Remembrances of meals past at Palena, one of the saddest restaurant goodbyes in recent years, revolved around fabulous food served by adequate servers in ordinary quarters. Mirabelle, some of us hoped, would check off all the important boxes. Right now, it's a wondrous beauty watched over by a solicitous bunch, with food that needs to soar higher to justify the price of admission.