Everything old is novel again.
The New York sour, a pre-Prohibition relic distinguished with a float of red wine, is in vogue at ABC Pony, among other hot spots. Pressed duck? Curious diners can explore the 19th-century French showstopper at the otherwise thoroughly modern Bresca, which carts the luxury to your table. And to be a new restaurant these days almost demands that you offer pavlova, the vintage dessert sprung from crisp-soft meringue and named for a long-ago Russian ballerina.
Beef Wellington is enjoying fresh attention, too. You’ll find a lovely version of the English classic at the Imperial, an alluring new multilevel restaurant from Bill Thomas, co-owner of the nearby Jack Rose Dining Saloon, and executive chef Russell Jones.
Carnivores who have never experienced beef Wellington — tenderloin separated from its flaky cover with a veneer of mushroom paste — are in for a splurge. Meat eaters who hesitate to order the dish, based on past brushes with gray beef and sodden pastry, will be delighted to see four ounces of meat cooked to a rosy medium-rare and a tiny pitcher of black truffle jus. The Imperial is the rare kitchen that serves the typically weighty main course as a single portion, and then on a landing of soft-cooked leeks.
Jones, 39, previously cooked at Jack Rose, and he and his sous-chef, Chris Reynolds, 26, last worked together at the late Tallulah in Columbia, S.C. Both are classically trained. When people ask them what they’re doing at the Imperial, Jones likes to say, “Southern fat boy French food.”
The laugh explains the presence of thick Carolina Gold rice gilded with sea-scented lobes of sea urchin; the zippy fried crackers and stinging housemade hot sauce served with a platter of raw oysters; and an onion tart that tastes like a noble riff on a Bloomin’ Onion. The small plate is a rich construction assembled from buttermilk-battered, cayenne-kissed fried cipollini onions served with remoulade in a thin pastry shell. As at Outback Steakhouse, the signature is best eaten with help from others and maybe followed by an extra hour of spinning.
Drop by if only to see what three merged storefronts and five years of construction (and delays) look like: a 5,500-square-foot neighborhood asset in south Adams Morgan. The main dining room and bar is a thing of simple beauty composed from chartreuse chairs, coffered ceilings, streams of natural light and abundant glass tiles. Warmer months will extend dining and drinking to a rooftop garden.
For his new place, launched in November, Thomas took out of storage hundreds of old spirits, including California brandy from the 1900s and preembargo rum from Cuba. For a price, you can check out some of his antiques. Anyone for a gin and tonic propelled by a spirit produced in Amsterdam in the 1930s and priced at $100 an ounce? No? The printed cocktail list includes some less-spendy treats, among them a twist on a Bee’s Knees bolstered with black currant and raspberry mead.
Beef Wellington has meaty competition in the braised rabbit, presented on a mound of old-school marrowfat beans and pork fat with all the swagger of a cassoulet. Jones displays his affection for pastry again in a fine vol-au-vent: puff pastry with a well of creamy leeks and fingers of steelhead trout on top, its gleam courtesy of orange trout roe. Gnocchi on a mash of roasted squash and toasted hazelnuts is nice enough, but having just reacquainted myself with Frank Ruta’s supernal pasta at the new Annabelle in Dupont Circle, I’m reminded there’s just one Frank Ruta.
Most of the plates fall between small-size and medium. Family-style dishes include two pounds of pedigreed Roseda rib-eye and a whole fish, sometimes vermilion snapper. Whatever the day’s catch, it’s dusted with seasoned rice flour, tucked in a basket and fried just long enough to crisp the skin. The result is impressive: a curve of fish, with flesh that falls easily away from the bone, the food equivalent of an iceberg breaking from a glacier. A chunky, caper-ignited tomato sauce makes a nice cloak, and should you wish for a side dish, mushrooms sauteed with fresh thyme and mellow garlic are good company.
Don’t let the lack of a confirmed seat on the main floor dissuade you from visiting the Imperial, whose charms continue with a first-come, first-served lower-level raw bar as well as the basement lounge Dram & Grain, relocated from the whiskey-focused Jack Rose. The no-reservations raw bar is set off with a ring of stools and a ledge facing a bay window. The glass captures the intersection of 18th Street and Florida Avenue NW and gives customers the impression of watching a silent movie, albeit in color.
Then again, you might focus your attention on whatever oysters strike your fancy. The raw ones include creamy, deep-cupped Kumamotos, smelling faintly of melon. The cooked specimens are Rockefeller-esque, their richness kept in check with a bright green and gently crisp persillade. There are seafood towers, too, priced from $28 to $158. The priciest high-rise rounds up the usual suspects — oysters, clams, jumbo shrimp — along with those oysters Rockefeller, a whole lobster and blue crab. Not for nothing does it go by “Imperial.”
Surprise, surprise! No pavlova on the list. The one dessert worth hanging around for is the chocolate mousse with a pretty, two-toned surface and a texture that puts you in the clouds — which is more or less where your head is after a meal here.
The Imperial (Good/Excellent) 2001 18th St. NW. 202-299-0334. imperialdc.com. Open: Dinner Monday through Saturday. Prices: Appetizers $2.50 (oysters by the piece) to $18; main courses $14 to $60 (whole fish). Sound check: 82 decibels / Extremely loud. Accessibility: A ramp at the front door allows for easy access; restrooms on two floors can accommodate wheelchair users.