Before opening Requin on the Southwest waterfront in October, Mike Isabella tasked its eventual chef, Michael Rafidi, to include on the menu "a good roast chicken, escargots and foie gras," recalls the serial restaurateur and visionary behind the French-Mediterranean dining room. The chef obliged. His boss never brought up salads, but Rafidi, whose spirited Spanish-Moroccan cooking at Arroz in the Marriott Marquis landed that restaurant on my list of Top 10 newcomers in my fall dining guide this year, did what he typically does and came up with a seductive first impression.
That's a roundabout way of telling you to home in on the pear salad at Requin, the captivating spinoff of the (now-casual) brasserie of the same name in the Mosaic District in Fairfax. There are other great dishes to mull at Isabella's latest venue, but none that put you in as seasonal a frame of mind as this sepia-toned composition. Pears are featured three ways — fresh, poached and compressed-then-bruleed — and arranged with yam puree and pleasantly bitter chicory. Blue cheese weighs in with its sharp edge. A crumble of bread crumbs and fried, spiced black walnuts contributes crunch. The finishing touch is a brown butter vinaigrette that links the different notes to form a joyous concert, the edible equivalent of leaves turned the color of fire and a nip in the air.
The last major restaurant to open at the 25-acre District Wharf is the first one many visitors see upon arrival, thanks to Requin's front-and-center placement in the expanse and a steel-and-glass facade that has been called both a jewel box and a fish tank. (Requin is French for "shark." Gone from the project: Jennifer Carroll, Isabella's fellow "Top Chef" veteran.)
Everyone has something to fix their eyes on. Patrons brought to the back, which is dressed up with a zinc-paved bar and 16-foot-long glass chandeliers, can take in the waterfront. Cooking-show enthusiasts should request a table near the open kitchen, in which some inhabitants work thisclose to the people they are feeding. To watch a cook assemble a tartine from toasted country bread made in-house and (take your pick) smoked cauliflower, glistening diced tuna or bayonne ham is to watch good ingredients morph into a beautiful, splittable open-face sandwich.
The most imaginative hors d'oeuvre rolls two French traditions into one fanciful bite. Using a recipe he developed at the helm of RN74, the much-missed wine restaurant in San Francisco, Rafidi tucks snails that have been poached in duck fat into flaky balls of puff pastry and bakes them to order. Voila! Escargot "croissants," each morsel a little celebration of crunch, warm meat and hot Chartreuse butter.
The course you want to focus on is petits plats, whose portions fall somewhere between an appetizer and a main course — ideal for sharing, your waiter might suggest. Petits plats include the aforementioned pear salad, an excellent scallop crudo and snowy halibut tiled with crisp potato coins and set on sunchoke creme fraiche. Loveliest of all is the twisted pasta (caramelle) stuffed with pumpkin and arranged with ocean-fresh stone crab and soft Brussels sprouts petals. Before it is served, truffle butter and lobster sauce are added. As busy as the presentation sounds, each of its elements plays a crucial role, evinced by the clean plate that goes back to the kitchen.
The prize of the shareable main courses, or plats principaux, is a succulent roast chicken that Rafidi calls an homage to the bird at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. That beloved restaurant stages the draw, worthy of a pilgrimage, on a bread salad scattered with pine nuts and currants. Requin's buttermilk-brined chicken is a far richer version, fashioned with croutons flavored with chicken fat and dropped off with whipped potatoes that are equal parts vegetable and butter. Preventing anyone from crying uncle is a mustard jus to balance the fat. A riff on duck a l'orange is shy on its promised citrus note; if preserved kumquats were in the mix, my fork didn't find them. But the confit leg is pitch-perfect, shattering skin yielding to luscious flesh, and the accompanying beluga lentils are pure comfort.
Taha Ismail and Jennifer Knowles ensure you will sip memorably. They're the drinks guru and general manager-wine director, respectively. The cocktails include a mezcal-forward Allo Allo that goes down like a "Mexican daiquiri," in the words of a helpful server, and a martini escorted by house-pickled onions and extra gin in an icy carafe. I have yet to do a deep dive into the wine list, but only because Knowles reads a table like a map to figure out the best wine for your party. (She's confident to recommend much-maligned chardonnay and has a soft spot for syrah.) Should there be liquid remnants, the sommelier might top them with a spritz of argon gas to protect the wine from coming into contact with oxygen till the bottle is reopened — a deft touch that finds grateful recipients toasting Requin days later at home.
The chef's seeming Midas touch does not extend to every dish. Steak frites is a pleasant piece of beef, cooked to the color you want, served with thick-cut potatoes that need more time in the fryer and a better swab than the blank-tasting bearnaise. And the bouillabaisse, crammed with beautiful sea treasures, among them red snapper, steamed mussels and octopus crisped on the plancha, is dragged down by a broth that tastes anemic despite the presence of wine, shallots, green olives and smoked pork sausage.
Servers need to get a better grasp on things, too, sometimes literally, as on the night my dining companion kept track of the number of times dishes crashed to floor. "Six!" he whispered before the evening concluded, without the coffee he asked for.
Good things come to those who get dessert. Pavlova brings a white dome of softly crisped meringue and pear compote around which a server pours a striking red currant coulis. Warm beignets dusted with powdered sugar and offered with chestnut cream streaked with caramel send us into giddy coughing fits. Less dramatic, but just as joy-inducing, is the sundae built with three flavors of ice cream set off with a crisp palmier and candied hazelnuts. If you order nothing, you still get something along with the bill: a custard-centered canele, a lovely last impression.
It is admittedly early in the life of this Requin. But the waterfront bauble already demonstrates a maturity in the kitchen, and a fresh take on French standards, to rival its location, location, location.
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100 District Sq. SW.
Open: Dinner daily.
Prices: Snacks and petits plats, $5 to $23; main courses to share, $36 to $75.
Sound check: 76 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.