The way Hakan Ilhan sees dining in Georgetown, the high and casual ends are covered. “The vacuum is the middle,” says the prolific restaurateur, who wants to fill it.
Having previously served Washington tastes of Italian (Al Dente), Turkish (Ottoman Taverna) and contemporary American (Mirabelle), he recently placed his bets on French, with Brasserie Liberté. Big and beautiful, the newcomer replaces the drab Morton’s steakhouse with a menu that marries Gallic classics with what the owner says are the wants of the neighborhood’s affluent residents, university students and tourists.
Above all, Ilhan says he wants to seduce millennials, whom he considers the drivers of most dining decisions. He’s wooing them with friendly price points (entrees average $23) and dishes he thinks they might like. Hence a carrot grain bowl parked amid the escargots, steak frites and tuna nicoise.
The restaurateur hired young, too. Jaryd Hearn, recruited from the Polo Grill & Bar in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., and previously a morning sous-chef at the modernist Alinea in Chicago, turned 26 on Christmas Eve. What’s good on his menu is worth a drive across town. What’s lesser reminds you not to give up any date nights at Le Diplomate, Le Piquette or the nearby Chez Billy Sud.
The richly colored setting erases every trace of Morton’s. The Cinderella transformation involved raising ceilings, unblocking windows, erecting a wall of wine, putting in a skylight, tinting some of the wood floors blue and hanging thick drapes around the perimeters. Oh, there’s also a fireplace in the shape of a tagine. The owner seems to be covering all his bases with the design, inspired in part by the Ivy in London and built from the start (how smart) with sound absorbers. Liberté doesn’t scream “brasserie,” and that’s the way Ilhan intended it. Nods to France tend to be subtle — a portrait of Napoleon here, some wicker cafe chairs there. The showiest destination of all is table 56, a dome-shaped tapestried booth. To see the plush beauty is to understand why it’s known as the “Fabergé egg.”
French onion soup is every bit as enticing as it looks. Beneath the cover of blistered, chive-freckled Emmental cheese, your spoon finds a soup made robust with mushroom and beef broths. Equally strapping is the first course of spicy sausage coins and sweet seared scallops arranged on sunchoke puree with golden raisins and apple. (Pork is your friend here; the plump boudin accompanied by roasted mushrooms and melting onions is also delicious.) Crackery Alsatian flatbread smeared with creme fraiche and scattered with bites of butternut squash and rosemary makes a nice shareable with drinks.
Some of the rest of the appetizers seem to be coming from a different kitchen, however. My first encounter with salmon rillettes was my last. With the exception of some lemon zest, the flavor in the little jar of cured fish and creme fraiche proved faint. Sour is not a flavor you expect — or want — in a parfait of chicken liver and foie gras. The saddest start was the snails, propped up with melted butter and garlic and as chewy as erasers.
Stay with me. Things improve. Let me introduce you to the greatest pleasure on the list, beef bourguignon. Your mouth starts to water at the sight of tender short ribs, glossy enough to warrant sunglasses. The sheen comes from incorporating pork skin into the braising liquid, says Hearn, and adding a knob of butter before the beef leaves the kitchen. The chef also adds kombu, dried seaweed, to the sauce for more umami. The tricks might be new, but the result is a deeply satisfying dish, fortified with carrots, lardons and mushrooms, that tastes of the long ago.
If a main course sounds like something Julia or Jacques would have demonstrated on TV, odds are in your favor. Duck leg confit crackles like you want it to; a bed of earthy lentils and a ring of mustard cream sauce extend the satisfaction. Steak au poivre repeats its heat in an escort of horseradish-lit potato au gratin.
Like the design, some dishes aren’t particularly French. Chicken is on the menu mostly to satisfy a price point, says the chef. Unfortunately, the $20 entree, served atop barley “risotto,” is flavored with honey and lavender, a combination better suited to pulse points or a boudoir than to a dinner plate. Parts of the bird were also dry. The aforementioned carrot-grain bowl is flagged as vegan. Having tasted the dish — basically a bunch of roasted carrots plopped on some quinoa and kale with a smear of chickpea puree — I feel sorry for herbivores. The plate strikes me as a random grab from a salad bar.
Lots of spots do moules frites. Fewer places offer fish frites. Hearn coats mild Japanese catfish with a tempura-style beer batter and serves the paprika-seasoned fish with fries that he soaks, steams and blanches twice in hot oil. The effort pays off. Expect fries that are fluffy inside and hold their crunch. Any Irish pub would be pleased to serve the combo.
Paris-Brest is popping up on more dessert menus, and all I can ask is, what took it so long? The classic circular pastry, split and filled with hazelnut cream, is indulgent without being excessive, and I like the faint crunch of granules of sea salt caramel. Profiteroles change flavor with the season. Ahead of Christmas, it was a treat to taste gingerbread models. Ice creams come in such fun combinations as chocolate-peppermint.
Little particulars score major points with diners. Tables come dressed with brass salt and pepper shakers, so there’s no need to ask. The house-filtered water is gratis, as is the very good bread. Cocktail enthusiasts will toast the classics and the prices; most are $12 or less. While I’ll never experience it, VIPs will probably welcome the private side entrance. Come warmer weather, the party can spill outside, to a sunken patio. And the roomy restrooms are as attractive as the dining rooms.
There’s much to admire at Brasserie Liberté. Cooking is part of the draw. It should be more.
Brasserie Liberté (Good) 3521 Prospect St. NW. 202-878-8404. libertedc.com. Open: Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday. Prices: Dinner appetizers $8.95 to $18.95, main courses $15.95 to $34.95. Sound check: 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Entrance, restrooms and dining room are all wheelchair accessible.