Restaurant truism No. 569: Roast chicken is as easy to find as a Meghan Markle update. Often, sadly, the dish is as exciting as sorting socks.
Jonathan De Paz, executive chef at Primrose in Brookland, shows diners it doesn’t have to be that way. Designed for two but plenty for three or four, his whole roast chicken is a marriage of mindful shopping and technique he honed at some of the best restaurants in the country, French Laundry in Napa Valley and Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan included.
The seduction starts with a slow-growing heritage chicken from Virginia that absorbs a bit of sweetness and sass from a brine that mingles brown sugar, Fresno chiles and jalapeño. As the chicken roasts, cooks baste it with hot oil and date juice, giving its skin a caramel hue and welcome tackiness. Carved before it leaves the kitchen, the centerpiece, including velvety slices of breast meat and a garnish of toasted cashew gremolata, is trailed by sublime french fries, a green salad that adds a nice snap to the rich feast and, if you’re smart, a wine paired by the resident grape nut, co-owner Sebastian Zutant.
What started as a Sunday evening special can now be enjoyed every night of the week, and to that I say hourra!
If you’ve ever strolled the streets of Paris, Primrose is likely to spark deja vu. Just over a year old, the corner French bistro looks like it’s been around for ages, which is precisely the point of co-owner Lauren Winter. A designer and a Francophile, she and Zutant, her husband, brought back from a trip to Paris a handful of ideas that make for the coziest boîte in Washington. The dining room’s fanciful ostrich chandeliers get the most press, but a glance around reveals such fine points as a zinc counter at the pale blue bar, marble tabletops and handsome millwork. Another whimsical notion is the empty frame on the rear wall, whose void is filled with a changing picture — dancing flames, snowy landscapes — courtesy of an overhead projector.
De Paz, 28, continues the illusion of being in Paris with some traditional French starters, including a round of chopped raw beef carpeted with minced chives and parsley and a sunny egg yolk. Pierce the garnish, and you get a nice sauce for the steak tartare. There’s onion soup, too, with a thick seal of aged Gruyere and a robust broth that even vegetarians can appreciate, made as it is with mushroom and dried seaweed instead of beef stock. Only once has the bowl gone back to the kitchen unfinished: the night the broth smacked as if sugar had been stirred into it.
Other dishes speak more to modern tastes. Baby radishes and fennel bunch together, leafy tops up, in a bowl containing a “fondue” of brie, cream and garlic; diners attempting to eat the bouquet with both forks and fingers find the latter work best. Cabbage leaves with signs of char and diced carrot roasted to a crisp finish won’t win any beauty prize, but the free-form appetizer is nevertheless delicious. The warm salad rises from a slick of reduced carrot juice, thickened with egg yolk, to which a vinaigrette made with burnt juniper and carrot peelings has been added. (If it sounds as if De Paz is a frugal, use-every-scrap kind of chef, he is. Good for him for setting an example.)
Pot pies and cold weather go together like April and Paris. The version at Primrose includes soft chopped mushrooms, thyme and porcini broth under a crisp pastry cover, garnished with a dollop of creme fraiche and yogurt flavored with roasted mushroom bits. For full impact, spear some warm mushroom, crust and a bit of the topping onto your fork.
The food is described and delivered by people who know when to let you eat and when to interject. “See the sky?” a staff member asks. We turn around in our window seats to catch a bewitching sunset, a swirl of pink and periwinkle. “I just had to share it,” he adds before returning to his rounds. Primrose is an attentive restaurant. House-filtered water is gratis, and a trip to the restroom finds Q-Tips, mints, even a baby changing table. As the wine representative, Zutant gains diners’ trust with his spot-on recommendations, including a beaujolais, the 2017 Zordan “Cuvee Spaciale” Fleurie, whose soft, elegant and subtly herbal notes pair well with the lacquered chicken.
Not every entree performs like the whole roast chicken. Ricotta gnocchi and pork loin with grits, while respectable, don’t come close. As much as I wanted to like the cod set on pommes puree with potato croquettes — spud love times two — the fish, garnished with celery leaves, was served borderline cool. The better and lighter fish dish is the menu’s newest attraction, arctic char, presented with sparkling winter citrus and crisp fennel. Steak frites? Mais oui. The beef comes in thick slices, with a handful of those wonderful double-blanched fried potatoes and a béarnaise that reminds you what friends we have in butter, tarragon, yolks and vinegar.
“We want to have fun,” says De Paz, whose post before Primrose was at Jack Rose in Adams Morgan. To that end, he offers what a waiter calls “tostadas” with another of his winning entrees, oxtails braised with dried chiles and warm spices, among them star anise. The saucers of white, pull-apart flatbread become a vehicle for the lusty shredded meat, which becomes more of a joy with a spritz of the accompanying lime. The fragrant jasmine rice on the plate is for when you finish the bread. As with the fondue, though, you’re encouraged to eat the dish as you wish. With the oxtails, Zutant had us drinking, and admiring, a syrah, redolent of dried red fruit, from Domaine des Miquettes in the southern Rhone.
Chocolate pot de creme is the best way to part Primrose. Dark and decadent, yet not too sweet, the confection comes with a crown of fresh whipped Chantilly cream. The other desserts show inattention, most of all the madeleines. What should be light and spongy are leaden and dry — certainly nothing for Proust to write home about. In the event you ignore my advice and order the little cakes anyway, at least ask for the orange dip rather than the pistachio glue I encountered on a recent visit.
It helps to know where to point your finger on the menu at Primrose. This much is true: To grasp the kitchen’s best efforts is to swap, if only for a meal, Brookland for Paris.
Primrose (Good) 3000 12th St. NE. 202-248-4558. primrosedc.com.
Open: Dinner daily , brunch Saturday and Sunday. Prices: Appetizers $10 to $15, main courses $19 to $26.
Sound check: 73 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.