This review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2017 Spring Dining Guide as No. 1 on a list of the year’s 10 best new restaurants.
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One of the many reasons you need to make time for Mirabelle, the new bauble from prolific restaurateur Hakan Ilhan: No Washington chef proves more meticulous than Frank Ruta. Take the vegetables in his dish of veal tongue; the carrots and spinach taste as if each had been pampered by their own kitchen minder. Equally impressive is the former White House chef’s boudin blanc, cloudlike in texture and whispering of juniper in its seasoning. The icing on the cake at one of the most fetching dining rooms in town (love the leather walls) is the presence of a dessert trolley outfitted by pastry chef Aggie Chin, whose butterscotch cremeux is the richest pudding in town, and gracious-as-it-gets attention, thanks to wine and service director Jennifer Knowles. The competition should be nervous. Prepare to drop some serious money, but also to be dazzled.
900 16th St. NW. 202-506-3833. mirabelledc.com.
Open: Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday.
Prices: Lunch entrees $27 to $29, dinner entrees $35 to $45.
Sound check: 73 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
More of Tom Sietsema’s top 10 new restaurants
The following was originally published March 24, 2017.
Mirabelle, on the fast track to sublime
Let me cut to the chase: It’s great to see two of Washington’s most respected talents, former Grill Room chef Frank Ruta and pastry maven Aggie Chin, cooking together again, at the just-opened Mirabelle. Georgetown’s loss is downtown’s gain.
And what a lovely dining room! Mirabelle looks like no other, appointed with walnut-framed tufted leather walls, opulent lighting and semicircular booths just waiting for food lovers to sink into the cushions. There’s music, but it’s unobtrusive. As a design pal said over lunch, Mirabelle “makes you feel like you’re in a big-time place.”
Equally sublime is the corner location, two blocks from the White House. Get the right seat and you can see the top of the Washington Monument. One can only imagine what a crowd there will be once the front patio opens. (Dinner service commences April 3.)
Bon, bon, bon. But what most captured my attention as I eased into lunch earlier this week was the hyper-attention Ruta pays to every ingredient on a plate and in a bowl.
The greens in a spring salad taste as though each leaf and tiny vegetable had been plucked from some garden in California, then misted with a sherry vinaigrette made luscious with hazelnut oil and local honey. Glazed boudin blanc — basically a cloud whipped up from chicken, foie gras and cream — is the best around, served with braised red cabbage and white raisins, tangy as pickles. (The mystery flavor in the sausage is juniper.) Bites of pike tempura become part of an emerald soup when an intense watercress puree, thickened with tapioca, is added to the bowl.
Tongue, as in veal, has my heart, however. Slices of the braised meat share a bowl of broth with poached foie gras and gorgeous bites of carrot and spinach, each tasting as if fussed over by their own attendant and pronounced in flavor. The broth, so clear you could read through it, gets its strength from oxtail and other bones.
The entree is washed back with a rosé made by King Family Vineyards in Monticello country, a tip of the hat to Virginia and a chance to give a shout-out to wine and service director Jennifer Knowles, formerly of the nearby Plume and the Inn at Little Washington . The mantra she shares with her staff reveals itself to guests: “Be intuitive, purposeful, attentive, genuinely kind, confident.” The competition would be wise to copy the sentiment.
Five sandwiches, including ham with butter and a hamburger, are “an American thing,” says Ruta, the recipient of a James Beard Award for his cooking a decade ago. Plus, he adds, “we like baking bread.”
Meals are paced as though no one has to rush back to work, but some of us do. Maybe we should see the dessert list?
The selections are rolled to the table on the kind of cart you see in fancy establishments in Paris, which is where Chin says she was inspired by the “tableside aspect” in some of the finer establishments she and Ruta explored on a two-week R&D trip in November. On the cart at Mirabelle sit enticements including tarte Tatin, butterscotch cremeux and a jar of caramels and nougat: “A visual cue to help you make decisions,” announces a server. I’m drawn to a pale yellow “cake” made with 20 layers of crepes, each slathered with a veneer of yuzu marmalade and sesame seed cream. A twist on mille-feuille, the soothing confection comes with a delicate crackle, from crushed sesame tuiles in several layers, and becomes more indulgent with a swipe of buttery caramel sauce.
My maiden meal was not flawless. If you want bread, you have to ask for it, and an entree of halibut on a bed of soft beans and diced carrots, while technically correct, proved a bit of a snooze at the party. While beautiful, the watercress soup could have used a pinch less salt. And for such a rich restaurant, the tables, covered in white damask tablecloths and not much else, look severe.
Mirabelle has two meanings, says Chin. One of them refers to the yellow plum of northeastern France, prized for its sweetness. The other definition translates to “wondrous beauty,” which even at this early stage sounds appropriate for the best thing to happen downtown in seasons.