Blue Duck Tavern’s eye-popping banana cream pie. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)


Ryan LaRoche slipped into some big clogs when he replaced Sebastien Archambault in this warm-in-wood dining room with the visible kitchen in the Park Hyatt. My meals shortly after the newcomer’s September arrival from Chicago, where he cooked at the trendy NoMi Kitchen, tasted as if LaRoche were playing it safe. But as winter segued to spring, he unleashed some bright ideas while staying true to the rustic American theme.

Bean soup was poured over a pretty shrimp salad jazzed up with jalapeño and cilantro. Hake got tiled in potato slices and encircled by a moat of buttery chive sauce. In April, the choices, like the cherry trees, blossomed. Chicken-fried wild quail dappled with red pepper relish? Finger-lickin’ good. Braised rabbit in a bundle of tagliatelle? Smoked carrots make an inspired addition. Pea salad tossed with spiced nuts and preserved lemon on house-made ricotta is a head-turner and a crowd-pleaser.

Nowhere else have I had head cheese (head cheese in a hotel!) served as elegantly; the braised pork parts are formed into a cake with mustard seeds and gelatin, breaded, seared on the plancha, then set on creamy aioli and crowned with frisee. Salmon, in contrast, is fine, most interesting for its morels swollen with “butter we make ourselves,” says a dutiful server.

Spring pea salad, tossed with spiced nuts and preserved lemon on house-made ricotta. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)

The accompanying morels are a highlight of the crispy-skin salmon at Blue Duck Tavern. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)

The restaurant’s entrance entices customers to order dessert even before they see a menu; wisely, the designer put the pastry station near the door, where dozens of apple tarts seem to stand, fork-ready, no matter the time of day. Think fruit for dessert. Spring brings tart cherries under a crust with a scoop of house-churned vanilla ice cream. Bananas huddle in a pie with a chocolate-brushed crust and an igloo of soft balls of whipped cream freckled with shaved chocolate. Eyes (and belts) pop at the mere sight.

From the first sip of a hand-crafted cocktail to the last bite of lavender-chocolate bark, Blue Duck Tavern excels in great taste.

3 stars

→1201 24th St. NW. 202-419-6755.

Open: Breakfast and dinner daily, lunch Monday through Friday, brunch Saturday and Sunday.

Prices: Breakfast entrees $14 to $18, lunch entrees $20 to $36, dinner entrees $27 to $36, brunch entrees $15 to $32.

Sound check: 78 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.

Previously (2013):

This review appears in The Washington Post’s 2015 Spring Dining Guide.