There is, in Washington, no more sumptuous place to pick up a fork or raise a flute than Plume, the main dining room in the Jefferson Hotel.
Behold the crystal chandeliers sparkling from coffered ceilings!
Feast your eyes upon the crackling fire!
Silk wallpaper brings 18th-century Monticello to 21st-century Washington, and padded stools are brought out for the benefit of purses and briefcases alike. Ample tables mean you come in contact with your companion(s) only if you wish to. And, yes, that’s a cheese trolley parked in the corner. For a price, Plume offers the illusion of having dinner in a Michelin-anointed star across the pond.
There are two fresh reasons to get to know the five-year-old gem if you haven’t already been introduced: executive chef Ralf Schlegel and wine director Jenn Knowles.
Schlegel, 36, is a German native who comes from a family of hoteliers and last worked at the formal French restaurant Marcel’s in the West End.
Knowles, 39, hails from the esteemed Inn at Little Washington and infuses dinner with charm and wit as she dispenses a lovely marsanne with a first course of diver sea scallops. (The wine, she shares, is a collaboration between Rhone winemaker Michel Chapoutier and Anne-Sophie Pic, one of a handful of female French chefs to receive three Michelin stars for her restaurant in southeast France.) The sweet seafood is revealed when its recipient removes a sheer mustard crouton covering the scallops, their bright red bell pepper sauce and a scattering of toasted cashews and golden raisins.
With just six or so starters and entrees, Schlegel’s menu does not take long to examine. And the selections — foie gras terrine, lobster gratin, herb-crusted lamb — reflect those of a list written with high-end hotel guests in mind. What appears on the tables are compositions that, while serious, demonstrate a chef with a sly sense of humor. Almost every dish comes with a detail that elevates the familiar.
Legions of upscale restaurants serve foie gras terrine. The surprises in Plume’s version are dark veins of pleasantly bitter cocoa powder in the pink slab of duck liver and button-size meringues, kissed with elderflower syrup, on the plate. The chef gives his creamy salsify soup a little height with the help of cubes of seared Wagyu beef perched on the rim of the bowl. Of lesser delight are the oysters on the half shell that get lost beneath their dressings (including buttermilk, of all things). Distancing his beet salad from the lot out there, Schlegel arranges earthy golden beets with pickled trumpet mushrooms, a scattering of rose petals and a dressing made tart with sea buckthorn berries from Canada.
An easy way to be happy at Plume is to order something that originated in the water. Lobster presented in its shell and draped with hollandaise tinted with blood orange balances sweet with tart from bite to bite, while moist grilled halibut is set off with eye-catching couscous in the shape of quenelles. The grains are scarlet, and delectable, with the juices of red carrots and blood orange.
Which is not to say you should avoid red meat. The main course I keep coming back to is duck breast, sliced over a strip of smoky duck bacon and lined up alongside a precise bar of potato gratin. Next to it is a row of wild berry compote, the perfect condiment to the rich duck. Knowles suggests Châteauneuf-du-Pape with the entree one night, an earthy Rioja and even Madeira another visit. (A round of applause, please, for a sommelier who encourages pours by the half-glass.) There’s steak, too: lean bison strip loin flanked with creamy corn pudding and tiny green beans poking out of cherry tomato vases.
The lone meatless entree features a trio of lacy roesti topped with three different vegetable bouquets that change depending on what the chef sees in the market: a garden of good eating.
Short ribs on a slip of pastry as an amuse bouche? The gift from the chef, meant to ease patrons into dinner, seems a little heavy. For all its finery, Plume is not yet on par with the city’s most polished players. The restaurant’s bread is undistinguished, and some of the servers confuse staring at diners with being attentive. A few dishes prompt yawns; blue crab risotto proves richly bland. And the pre-desserts, while delicious, are also bigger and richer than optimal, detracting from the actual beautiful endings, among them dulce de leche panna cotta with mango chutney. That said, it’s easy to find room for one of the elegant chocolates (go for a filling of cherry yogurt) proffered from a plate at meal’s end.
Plume, where silver animal figurines grace the table tops and the pop of a champagne cork is about as loud as a night gets, is not an inexpensive proposition. Even an a la carte dinner for two with drinks and wine can easily climb to more than $300. What a diner is paying for is not merely dear foodstuffs, expertly handled, but a restaurant that lets you leave Washington for a hushed and beautiful cocoon, if only for a few precious hours.
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