Indulgence comes in all shapes and sizes — flavors, too. Here are a few of my favorite things: delights that make life more worth living, even if only in my dreams.
Sunday brunch at the hautest French restaurant in town, Marcel’s by Robert Wiedmaier, features food that’s every bit as rich as dinner — think chestnut soup and diver scallops lapped with shallot beurre blanc — plus a deal sure to quicken the pulse of a discerning drinker: 50 percent off all the restaurant’s 400-plus wine selections. Marcel’s is your chance to roll out of bed and enjoy, sans guilt, a perfect pork schnitzel with a fine red burgundy for under a Franklin.
The mood by day is as dreamy as at night, except that brunch gives visitors a chance to better see the dinery’s finery, from the thick white linens that cushion your elbows to a subdued color scheme that brings to mind oysters, pearls and champagne. Mussels gratin with tomato fondue and salmon carpaccio worthy of a gold frame are carry-overs from the dinner or pre-theater menus. Otherwise, the brunch dishes are fresh creations.
Someone in your party should order “Aunt Lila’s” pancakes, based on a recipe from Wiedmaier’s aunt in Alaska. The secret to their fluffiness: Egg whites and yolks are beaten separately, resulting in a texture akin to a souffle. Tufts of vanilla whipped cream, a shower of berries, a dusting of powdered sugar and a last-minute brush of butter further elevate the eye-opener to a breakfast hall of fame.
One question for the dashing sommelier and general manager, Moez Ben Achour: What wine goes with pancakes, please? He doesn’t hesitate to suggest Veuve Clicquot “La Grande Dame” Brut, normally listed for $450, but easier to digest at half that price — especially if someone else is treating.
2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-296-1166. marcelsdc.com. Brunch entrees $18 to $35.
What to gift food devotees who think they have everything? How about a chance to learn from some of the best cooks in the business? The four-star Inn at Little Washington makes fantasies come true for amateur cooks with its Stagiaire Program, a one-, two- or three-day opportunity to study whatever you’re interested in: Baking, butchering, sauce-making and pasta creation are among the many on-site options.
The bespoke packages include chef’s pants and matching apron; an autographed copy of chef Patrick O’Connell’s cookbook (“Refined American Cuisine”); lunch (but not dinner); discounts at the inn’s gift shop; and a 25 percent discount on a room at the inn. And yes, there will be face time with the star of the show, O’Connell, whose staff never schedules a class when he’s away.
Rachel Hayden, spokeswoman for the esteemed dining destination, says the program attracts three primary types: “hardcore foodies in search of a different experience,” fans of the Inn who want to see it from an insider’s perspective and “rabid entertainers” hoping to step up their game at home.
The Stagiaire isn’t for everybody, however. Basic knife skills and general stamina are prerequisites; participants spend much of their eight-hour days on their feet. “We used to do five-day stages,” recalls Hayden. “No one survived!”
309 Middle St., Washington, Va. 540-675-3800. theinnatlittlewashington.com. Custom-designed stages cost $1,000, $1,800 or $2,400.
Chef Joe Palma has been busy putting steaks through the hearts of the competition over the past year, expanding his meat program at Bourbon Steak in Georgetown from eight selections to an impressive 26.
It’s a cattle call with lots of designer brands: Wagyu from Japan, so tender and richly marbled you feel as if you’re grazing on meat butter; grass-fed, pleasantly iron-y boneless rib-eye from Tasmania; cornfed New York strip from the respected Allen Brothers in Illinois; and (open wide) a 68-ounce tomahawk rib-eye from Shenandoah Co-op in Virginia. Dry-aged for two months, the last is dubbed “The John Wayne” by Palma. Remove eight ounces of bone and maybe six ounces of fat and the carnivore still has plenty to chew on.
If the beef from 7X Ranch in Colorado tastes especially delightful, it might have something to do with cows that have grazed on alfalfa, clover and brome in mountain meadows.
A trick to joining the Clean Plate Club: Forgo the gratis bouquets of french fries and three dips that start a meal. Take a pass on the bread, too. You’ll want to make space for substance at what has become the headiest of Washington steakhouses.
2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-944-2026. bourbonsteakdc.com. Steaks $34 to $495 (for a 12-pound bone-in rib roast).
Among the most sought-after extravagances these days is solitude. Just ask Susan Gage, whose eponymous Maryland-based catering company benefits from noise pollution in restaurants. In a single week recently, she booked three separate parties with clients who told her they preferred entertaining at home, “where they could hear themselves think,” says the caterer. “Conversation is an important part of dinner,” says Gage. “It’s social and nourishing.”
With very few exceptions, you pay dearly for quiet in Washington restaurants. A special case is DeCarlo’s, the longtime Italian dining room that serves the purpose of a country club in Spring Valley. The menu is far from trendy, your waiter may be matter-of-fact and it helps to know what to order: creamy bean soup, agnolotti stuffed with spinach and set on Parmesan cream, maybe moist roast chicken. Michelin inspectors won’t be dropping by, in other words.
Still, if you crave a heart-to-heart with someone, or don’t care to read lips, this WASP retreat has what you’re looking for: pools of space around the tables, cozy burgundy booths with walls that almost reach the ceiling and a sound check (66 decibels) that compares favorably to normal conversation. All this and free parking, too.
When a friend tells me clergy go to DeCarlo’s when church members need to talk in private, I understand. Frank Sinatra will never sing over their conversation.
4822 Yuma St. NW. 202-363-4220. decarlosrestaurant.com. Entrees $19 to $58.
Mindful diners looking for the pomp and circumstance of a steakhouse, hold the meat, have a friend in Elizabeth Petty. She’s the owner of the Catering Company of Washington, based in an elegant townhouse downtown, where she presides over an upscale vegan dinner party on Friday nights.
Billed as Elizabeth’s Gone Raw, the evening commences with (very good) cocktails at a marble bar on the ground floor and continues with a seven-course dinner upstairs in a plush 56-seat dining room dressed with gilt-framed portraits and chandeliers.
The menu changes monthly, but always hews to two mandates: The dishes are all plant-based, and no ingredient is heated to more than 115 degrees.
Given the kitchen’s challenges, the joy is in how pleasing so much of the food is, starting (last month at least) with an amuse-bouche, leek panna cotta, garnished with cold-smoked coconut “bacon” coaxed from young Thai coconut and maple syrup. Gingery butternut squash soup gets its creaminess from almond milk, while a colorful citrus salad, sweetened with date puree and decorated with hearts of palm, features what looks like a poached egg but is in fact a pineapple “sphere.” Pierce the white (made with coconut puree) and a rivulet of pineapple juice follows.
The course I most want to eat again: figs stuffed with cashew creme and served atop a base of “couscous” fashioned with crumbled cauliflower marinated with rice wine vinegar and salt. For tang, pickled baby turnips ride along. Equally intriguing was a smoked beet “sausage,” zesty with smoked paprika and chili flakes and arranged on thin spaghetti squash noodles jump-started with sun-dried tomatoes. And black truffles.
Earthy-crunchy the evening is not; a dedicated sommelier proffers organic wine pairings for an additional $55 or so.
Bottom line: Fine dining doesn’t need meat to matter.
1341 L St. NW. 202-347-8349. elizabethsgoneraw.com. Seven-course, plant-based menu $75 per person.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the address of DeCarlo’s. It is 4822 Yuma St. NW.
THE LUXURY ISSUE