Fine dining was dealt a blow in Washington last year when first the Dining Room at Palena and then CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental went dark. The cloud comes with a silver lining. Palena chef Frank Ruta was recently recruited to take over the Grill Room in Georgetown, and Eric Ziebold of CityZen announced plans to roll out two upscale restaurants under one roof near Mount Vernon Square come fall.
Lost amid the tears and tributes was the news that another of the city’s top tables, Marcel’s, recast itself over summer and fall. Tired of his French-Belgian restaurant in the West End being labeled old hat, Robert Wiedmaier, executive chef and owner, ordered up a fresh look for his property of 16 years, a lifetime in the fickle restaurant industry.
If you haven’t supped at Marcel’s since its makeover, completed last month, you haven’t dined at Marcel’s. If ever there was a case to be made for the relevance of comfort and ambiance in the dining equation, this enhanced restaurant is it.
Can I show you around? White leather stools, a rich marble bar and a cupboard lined with sparkling stemware make for a newly glam lounge. In the dining room, fresh gold-green carpet cushions your stroll, chandeliers suggest starbursts and the chairs are so plush, the chef jokes that his servers ought to wear gloves to touch them. The prime perch remains Table No. 25, set in an alcove and facing a gold-framed mirror that reflects Marcel’s stage set of a kitchen, ablaze with copper pots — and cooking talent.
Marcel’s signature boudin blanc, plump with pheasant, foie gras and chicken, and supernal lobster bisque, sheathed in golden pastry, haven’t gone anywhere (well, anywhere but some diners’ hips). Joining the crowd-pleasers of late have been rotating creations — pot pie made noble with pheasant, butter-poached skate wing shaped into a cylinder and stuffed with minced mushrooms — that keep it contemporary. Possibly the most tradition-bound restaurant in town and one of the handful to still ask men to wear jackets, Marcel’s nevertheless knows how to balance yesterday with today.
Twenty-plus dishes listed under seven courses on a menu the size of a coffee table book is daunting at first sight. (Second, too. Chef, get thee an editor.) Frequent patrons know they can create their own tasting menu — four, five, six or seven courses — from any of the lot, for $90, $110, $130 and $150, respectively. “I don’t want to hold people food-hostage,” says Wiedmaier, who also lets diners order less, at a la carte prices. Five courses, he says, is the typical order; factoring in the opening hors d’oeuvres, the closing confections and the marvelous hot potato rolls accompanied by a trio of flavored butters, four courses is my sweet spot.
Make one of your choices sea urchin flan. The savory custard, shot through with vermouth and thyme and finished with sauteed lobster and glinting caviar, is a glorious ode to Poseidon. And by all means, ask for the buttery langoustine and crisp sweetbreads, a beautiful marriage of surf and turf arranged on a swipe of sweet pea puree and dappled with garlicky tomato concassé. A border of brioche crumbs, black with squid ink, lend drama to the first course. Fresh agnolotti stuffed with house-made ricotta cheese and draped with veal or beef Bolognese is more Italian than French. Indeed, the divine pasta places me in one of the expense-account lairs of competitor Fabio Trabocchi. The aforementioned dishes are found in the first half of the menu. Venison, a selection from the fifth course, is very good, presented with cauliflower puree and brandied cherries. Like a number of dishes toward the end of the list, however, it’s a technically correct entree that, while delicious, tastes less equal, more routine.
The food arrives on dishes that threaten to upstage what they’re meant to support. “Find me something no one else has,” Wiedmaier says he instructed his staff as they were shopping for the revised restaurant. I have yet to see anywhere else a china pyramid, its dimpled peak holding an amuse bouche of tuna tartare, or silverware as light and sleek as the blue titanium forks and knives on display at Marcel’s.
Service rivals food in its sumptuousness. The moment you’re seated, someone in a tailor-made suit snaps! a crisp linen and drapes it across your lap. Far from fusty, the staff are the sort who can detail the duck breast with caramelized turnips and bright clementines down to the last racy drop of green peppercorn sauce, but who also know how to read their audience: They are quiet when you want them to be, animated when you desire some levity with your prosciutto-draped, truffle-stuffed monkfish. (Setting down a crisp pastry “cigarillo” filled with mushroom duxelles and ending with caviar “ashes,” a server announced, “Cirque du Soleil!”) Testament to Wiedmaier, who named Marcel’s for his eldest son, the staff is a loyal one. Few restaurants can boast about employing for 15 years their maitre d’ or dishwasher, as this one can. Chef de cuisine Paul Stearman, 37, has been part of the team since the beginning. Continuity in the kitchen reveals itself in consistent murmurs of pleasure in the dining room.
In repeat visits, the most serious flaw was a common maraschino cherry (quelle horreur! ) plunked in a Manhattan. I’ll get over it. Only three desserts? All are lovely, the winey pear captured in puff pastry most of all. Sharing the plate, and amplifying the indulgence, are a canoli piped with pear mascarpone and a scoop of honey gelato.
One last quibble: While the low lighting shaves years off everyone’s faces, it also makes reading the menu a strain, even for those patrons who have yet to hear from AARP.
Dinner at Marcel’s suggests luxury dining isn’t going to fade to black anytime soon. With the help of fancy new amenities, Wiedmaier is leading the charge. Ultimately, however, he knows that great cooking is the best revenge.
Location: 2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-296-1166. www.marcelsdc.com.
Open: Dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday,5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Four courses $90, five courses $110, six courses $130, seven courses $150. Marcel’s also offers a pre-theater menu of three courses for $65 before 6:30 p.m.
Sound check: 71 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.
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