As a young chef, Cedric Maupillier dreamed of opening a place of his own and attaching his signature to the restaurant. Despite his laudable track record at Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan and, before that, Michel Richard Central downtown, Maupillier opted against adding his name to the first establishment of his own, Convivial in Shaw.
While the chef, 38, says that “I’m a big boy now,” he didn’t want to disgrace his parents if his effort wasn’t a success.
He needn’t have worried. “Have you been to Convivial?” food followers have been greeting one another ever since the American cafe’s doors opened in November. Right out of the gate, Maupillier is putting customers first, with soundproofing in the ceiling and walls and a novel approach to portions: Most of the dishes are medium-size, bucking the small-plates plague. Better yet, if you want your food served in courses instead of showing up randomly, as is regrettably common elsewhere, just ask: Your wish is the kitchen’s command.
Convivial’s menu is unlike any other restaurant’s in the city. Enticing entry points include crisp potato pancakes dressed with julienned celery root and crimson folds of dry-cured lamb; and leeks dijonnaise, basic on paper and beautiful in reality. Steamed, sliced and tossed with a mustard vinaigrette, the leeks are shaped into a round cake and strewn with tiny croutons, fried capers, microgreens and chopped egg: a fashion show on the plate.
Labeled “petit,” cassoulet is big on flavor, packed as the casserole is with duck leg confit, pork sausage, ultra-creamy Tarbais beans and Virginia country ham, the last element a little wave to the Mid-Atlantic. On the lighter side, there’s boudin blanc whipped up from scallops, egg whites and crème fraîche and displayed against julienned snow peas and a winy sauerkraut sauce for tang. Shimmering trout roe and skinny sea beans also accessorize the cloudlike sausage. Among the few dishes to make the leap from Mintwood Place to Convivial is a fancy bar of Key lime pie on a veneer of gingery cookie crumbs. The dessert proves a welcome carryover.
Overseeing the plummy dining room is general manager Justin Guthrie, another alumnus of Central but most recently the director of operations for the Kuller Restaurant Group. Three cheers for the cocktails, classics all, and for a wine list that celebrates grape varietals native to France. Another familiar face belongs to Saied Azali, the chef’s employer at Mintwood Place and a partner at Convivial.
The coziest spot in the house, a neighbor to the Cambria Hotel & Suites, is the square table for eight in a chandelier-lit alcove. The chef calls the space his “friends and family table.” But really, any place you find yourself in this maverick feels like its name.
801 O St. NW. 202-525-2870. convivialdc.com. Medium plates, $13 to $22.