Just as important, Ilhan has hired perhaps the perfect chef to execute this high-wire act of high-low cuisine: Former Palena chef-owner Frank Ruta announced today that he will leave the Grill Room at the end of October to open the new restaurant, located in the new 900 Sixteenth building, just two blocks from the White House.
"We have a lot of hotels there and people that visit the White House. We want to make it approachable to them," Ilhan said in an interview earlier this summer. "On the other hand, we have a lot of lobbyists and a lot of law firms that are really looking for something unique and something a little more higher-end than usual. So we are trying to combine the two."
Ilhan previously said the restaurant would be called Plateau, but that's now just the working name. The team is vetting other possibilities, too.
Ruta said neither he nor pastry chef Aggie Chin, who will also leave the Grill Room to join the new venture, have created menus yet for the forthcoming restaurant. But Ruta said they still have plenty of time for dish development between October and March, when the place is expected to open.
"We'll take time off and free our minds and think about it," Ruta said.
Ilhan seems to have expectations on what the menu will include. He's thinking such French bistro classics as steak frites, onion soup and croque madame, as well as more refined seafood dishes and brunch staples. Price point will be the deciding factor in how refined Plateau will be, Ilhan said. At present, he's considering entrees in the $25 to $35 range.
Ruta likes that Plateau will be grounded in French cooking. It's a cuisine Ruta knows well: He was trained in its techniques and, after his stint at the White House, he worked for Yannick Cam, one of Washington's most prominent French chefs. Ruta even thinks the new menus will have room for some of his signature dishes, such as the roast chicken and hamburger, but probably not for his plates more rooted in Italian cooking.
"I'll leave that for Sunday cooking back home," Ruta said about his Italian repertoire.
Norris Design Studio, Ilhan's go-to firm, will create a wood-heavy space that's "going to have that old school, very French look to it," Ilhan said. The place, after all, will have to appease those K Street high rollers "used to dining in restaurants that are very well designed [with] service being immaculate and the food being top-notch. We have to make sure that we really satisfy that niche without being a turnoff to some of the visitors that maybe are in town for three or four days."
"It's a very fine line," Ilhan observed.
The owner had originally hoped to open before Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, so he could welcome the crowds that flock to Washington to catch the ceremonies. But Ilhan doesn't think the timing will work out.
So would the Turkish native, now a U.S. citizen, welcome either new president, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, to his next restaurant?
"Yes, I would," Ilhan said. "I would."