When anyone asks me for directions on how to get paid to eat, I tell them to write like crazy, find a mentor, learn to cook, work at a respectable restaurant or two and get to know more about one thing than anyone else — be it medieval cooking or butchery — so as to become an expert in a passion.
I also tell budding critics to travel as much as their time and money will allow, in order to eat as many dishes as possible in their native habitats. Because the cioppino in San Francisco should be a model for the dish anywhere else one would try it. And only after you see warm butter cookies scooped out from beneath a tray of powdered sugar that looks just like inches of fresh snow, as you can at Steirereck in Vienna, Austria, will you appreciate the imagination that goes into some world-class meals.
So in following my own advice, I took a train to New York last month to eat at DBGB, the restaurant introduced five years ago in the East Village by the acclaimed French chef Daniel Boulud, whose Daniel is among a handful of Michelin-honored dining destinations in Manhattan. DBGB consolidates the chef’s initials with those of the late CBGB, the legendary punk rock club formerly located nearby.
But Boulud also claims a soft spot for the capital, having started his American career here in the early 1980s, when he briefly cooked for a member of the European Commission on Embassy Row. The original restaurant was followed by a spinoff DBGB in Washington’s new CityCenterDC, which opened about the same time in September as Bar Boulud in Boston.
Maybe that accounted for my initial tepid feeling toward the District branch, its opening as anticipated by food fans as a snow plow during a blizzard. Was the team behind the brand distracted or overwhelmed by the multiple launches? It tasted that way for a month or so.
At the least, the menu and staff would have benefitted from more rehearsal time. A hamburger topped with a mushy crab cake and a tarte flambee that shot blanks also contributed to the early feeling that the New York chef thought anything he sent our way would make us happy.
Zoom ahead to late December and lunch at the bar at DBGB D.C. Two of us are enjoying the restaurant’s best interior asset, a marble counter flanked by mirrored walls on which the musings of Homer Simpson and John Adams, among other notables, are written. Even more entertaining is the actual repast: briny oysters on a stand of shaved ice and a bowl of squash soup containing a surprise in every other spoonful: cranberry-macerated white raisins and bite from garam masala. The appetizers are followed by orecchiette under a blanket of lamb ragu, filings of cheese and toasted bread crumbs that suggest an Italian is behind the recipe. One is: Ed Scarpone is only 27 years old, but has already spent half a dozen years with Boulud, most recently as executive sous-chef at DB Bistro in New York.
The Big Apple’s loss is the District’s gain. Scarpone is putting out some of his best work since he got here. Gone from the debut menu are that silly “Crabbie” burger and deviled eggs. More to my liking are novelties including cauliflower florets affixed to the plate with vadouvan and staged with precise matchsticks of green apple and diced poached apple spiced with espelette — a garden of good eating. “I like all the confetti!” a companion said as her fork made the rounds of the artful plates at a recent meal.
I like the frills as well, but more than that, it’s good to see a chef make vegetables look so alluring. You may be as tired of kale as of Kardashian updates, but the grilled kale with buttermilk dressing will make you fall for the overextended green all over again. The salad’s charms include sweet potatoes prepared like pommes souffle and the tiny, spiral-shaped white tuber called crosne (pronounced: krohn), which the kitchen pickles before using as a crisp accent.
Sausage claims a menu category of its own. Link up with at least one house-made selection in the group. Boudin blanc arranged with soft poached apples and buttery whipped potatoes trumps Marcel’s version in the West End, while boudin noir, dark with blood, arrives as a soft disk of earthy pleasure over scallion-laced mashed potatoes and celery root. On the lighter side, there’s a skinny pork sausage that brings to mind Thailand with its hit of lemon grass, teasing papaya salad and a scoop of basil-threaded fried rice capped with a quail egg. (The garnish makes the dish American but also leads to richer rice once the yolk is pierced.)
If an ingredient flapped before it was cooked, order it at DBGB. There’s no finer coq au vin in town right now than Scarpone’s winey chicken lavished with smoky lardons and near-melting pearl onions, dropped off with a little casserole of squiggly spaetzle. Brined, fried chicken is almost as good, its savor pulled from cayenne and honey. Hauter than either is the duck, two bars of crimson fowl arranged on a sumptuous swirl of nutty wild rice and roasted beets, jolted with pomegranate. The duck is cooked so that each bite commences with a crackle of skin and continues with an “ah” as the sherry-glazed meat registers on the taste buds.
The kitchen also grills a steak to rival that of its neighbor, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle. DBGB’s prime rib-eye, served with a forest of mushrooms, drapes off the plate and is plenty for two hearty appetites. But lots of places can give you a good steak. Your game plan should involve another sausage or some surf, maybe fluke on its bone. Saffron linguine would be better with more of its promised bottarga.
Little thoughtfulnesses abound: hot punch, poured from a tea pot when the temperature takes a dive, and bread from no less than my longtime friend Mark Furstenberg, whose Bread Furst bakery sells its loaves to only one other restaurateur in town, Fabio Trabocchi. (Now if only management could find a way to mask the glare of the street lamps parked outside the front windows.)
My trip to the Big Apple to compare the first DBGB with the second finds swell service at both. Neither of the DBGBs I’ve visited are what you would call attractive. High-energy, yes. The semi-industrial New York establishment benefits from a visible kitchen that nearly wraps around the dining room. But it’s as loud as a rock concert at peak times. Both venues suffer from shelves of ingredients or cookbooks that give the restaurants a whiff of the commercial. In Washington, plates signed by 100 or so of Boulud’s chef-pals serve as the chief distraction, I mean, decoration.
But my big takeaway from 212 was this golden nugget: 202 is — hold onto your forks — more seductive. Of the dishes offered on both menus, only the desserts tasted as if the same talent made them. In New York, an appetizer of fried calamari with pickled peppers was most tempting for the brilliant swipe of kaffir lime cream on the side of the bowl. Otherwise, the sharable was just grease in Technicolor. Steak frites came to the table undercooked, with potatoes as limp as shoestrings. Least appealing of all was duck that bore no relation to the splendid main course served in CityCenterDC.
Baked Alaska, set ablaze at the table, provides a showy finish, but my preference is for the demure desserts. They include a petite souffle, spiked with Grand Marnier and gilded with liquid vanilla custard, and a tangy lemon tart treated to a scoop of pomegranate sorbet. Watch your New Year’s resolutions melt after a taste of either.
DBGB, you’re a late bloomer, but ILU now.
Location: 931 H St. NW. 202-695-7660. www.dbgb.com/dc.
Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 11 a.m.to 3 p.m. weekends.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $11to $24, main courses $15 to $59.
Sound check: 74 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.
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