Eat out a dozen meals a week for work and you, too, might relish the occasional breakfast, lunch, brunch, dinner or bar stop with just your own company.
As far as I’m concerned, the only downside to eating alone in a good restaurant now and then is not being able to taste more of the menu. Otherwise, I relish the chance to focus on a chef’s creatively, to see what makes him tick — to linger for as long as I want over, say, a tomato salad sparked with pepper and a tuft of whipped cream flavored with … can it be anchovy? Or morsels of warm cod on a bed of crumbled cauliflower and black rice, a vivid fish salad that could easily become a habit.
That meal is for real, by the way, two courses for $27, glass of wine included. You’ll find it on the lunch menu at a new restaurant that might surprise you because 1) it’s in the Golden Triangle, not known for breaking food news of late, and 2) it doesn’t ask you to go to extremes (wait in line, enlist TaskRabbit, eat at 10 p.m.) to sample it.
Have you met Le DeSales? You ought to. It’s a civilized dining room that shares an alley with the Mayflower hotel and replaces the Spanish-themed Panache, whose owners reimagined the interior and introduced a French accent in March. The chef, Raphael Francois, is easy to spot. He’s the guy with the bushy red beard and round glasses. French-Belgian, he comes to Washington from New York, where he served for two years as executive chef of the venerable Le Cirque. Before that, he worked in the same capacity at the Connaught in London.
The résumé suggests something traditional. The restaurant trots out familiar dishes in fresh ways.
You know that reaction when you encounter a friend you haven’t seen in awhile? That’s the way I feel every time I walk into the dining room, where I’m greeted not just with human warmth, but with an ambiance that says “come on in, loosen your tie, would you like a drink?” The low ceilings come with recessed lights, a big communal table beckons near the front window and a serpentine bar deserves to be more crowded than it is at the moment. The look is at once modish and cozy, reminiscent of a boite you might find in Brussels or Copenhagen.
Francois, 37, has done a lot of fancy cooking over his career. At Le DeSales, he says he’s more interested in serving the food of his youth, albeit with restaurant flourishes. Ask for the pistachio-veined pâté, made using duck and chicken liver, and a slab comes to the table with the usual condiments (cornichons, mustard), but also a manager holding a big jar of pickled cauliflower or onion, pieces of which he retrieves with long tweezers and places on the meat board. Jolted with peppercorns and juniper berries, the vegetables act like spark plugs on the bourbon-stoked pate. Their journey from jar to plate, with what looks like a surgical instrument, also turns heads as surely as any birthday candle.
There are curiosities. One of them is shredded crab salad, topped with fresh tarragon and all but hidden beneath a liquid drape of pureed potatoes, around which a server pours a thin mahogany sauce coaxed from roasted shellfish and tomato paste. If Neptune ate shepherd’s pie, this would be it. I like it enough for a few bites, but the dish tilts rich for a first course.
There are classics with a twist. I’m thinking now of the bavette, dry-aged beef that’s been marinated in house-made Worcestershire sauce and picks up a caramelized gloss from the grill. Ringlets of fried shallot lend crunch to the entree, while halved grapes contribute juice and color. Broccoli goes well with the feast; the side dish zings with mustard and peanuts.
Perusing the menu one night, the vegetarian at my table figures he’ll go home hungry. Our server has another idea. My companion is gratified to be served a plate spread with raw crushed cauliflower in three colors (green, purple and white) and nutty-tasting forbidden rice, everything sauced with sunny lemon. Sound familiar? The crisp backdrop for the cod at lunch turns in such a winning solo performance, the dish all but disappears as it’s passed around the table for others to try.
Francois says he likes to “mix everything together,” meaning he creates dishes that let you taste everything on the plate in every bite. For your consideration: “lobster & fries,” rich bites of seafood crowded together with thick-cut, cayenne-ignited fries; comte cheese; and a wine sauce incorporating marinated tomatoes — shades of poutine, only showier. Just as Francois would like, a stab of the fork into the lot picks up the sea, the land, some heat, a little tang.
A few dishes taste like a lesser talent is behind them. Quail with prunes on a bed of soupy wheat? Not a reason to visit. The hamburger stabbed with a steak knife? More dramatic than delicious.
One server might take your order, another might bring you the food, yet someone else might pour your wine (a little too fast, alas, as if to hasten the sale of a second bottle). In general, this is a team that works well and in concert. Diners seated along the leather banquette can watch some of their dishes being prepared courtesy of a broad kitchen window. Berets on the cooks are a cute touch.
This being a French restaurant, there’s creme brûlée, and it’s good and proper. On the refreshing side, the kitchen mixes a “piña colada” with rum, pineapple and vanilla that comes with a spoon rather than a straw. I say, splurge on the chocolate tart. It’s loose — almost runny — intense and served on a buttery crust, alongside a scoop of espresso ice cream that negates the need for coffee. Chocolate has no power over me, or so I thought until I took a bite of the tart (then another and another). Like Le DeSales, it’s a seducer and a talker.
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1725 DeSales St. NW
Open: Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday
Prices: lunch appetizers $8 to $19, main courses $16 to $23; dinner appetizers $9 to $22, main courses $17 to $48 (chicken to share)
Sound check: 75 decibels