As part of their research for Mirabelle, the forthcoming French-American destination near the White House, chef Frank Ruta and pastry chef Aggie Chin dined at as many Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris as they could fit into their schedule. As they described it, their two-week trip sounded as much like a statement of purpose as an investigation of French dining.
Mirabelle, the trip suggests, will reach for the stars. As in Michelin stars, the ones awards by the famous French guide that now covers Washington. But Ruta and Chin both downplay Mirabelle's Michelin ambitions, as if the chefs' shared modesty is part of the chemistry that has made their partnership so successful at the late Palena in Cleveland Park and at the Grill Room in Georgetown.
"We want to do the best that we can given the space in the kitchen and everything we have at our disposal," Chin said. "We want the best reviews. We want the best accolades. We kind of want it all. But until we start executing everything, I don’t think we can say, ‘Oh, this is definitely going to be a one-star or two-star place'.”
Ruta, who won a James Beard Award while at Palena, is more interested in turning Mirabelle into one of Washington's top restaurants, rather than some international destination for Michelin star-chasers. "We do want to push ourselves to get that acclaim," he said. "I mean, I think the investment is there from our owner. He’s been extremely supportive . . . He really hasn’t said 'no' too much to what we wanted to do."
The owner would be Hakan Ilhan, the restaurateur who has quietly amassed a small dining empire with Alba Osteria, L’Hommage Bistro, Ottoman Taverna and Al Dente. Ilhan not only sent his Mirabelle chefs to Paris, racking up bills that would give Warren Buffett pause, but he also spared little expense for his first fine-dining establishment. He invested in custom-designed tables, brass fixtures, marble counters and hand-made wood trolleys that will roll desserts into the dining room during lunch and showcase cheeses during dinner.
What's more, Ilhan instructed Norris Design Studio to reduce the size of the restaurant's private dining room after Ruta said he would need more space in the kitchen for pastry production. To satisfy Ruta's request, Ilhan had to cut 10 to 15 seats from the private dining area, which will ultimately cost him thousands of dollars in revenue. "It wasn’t an easy decision," the restaurateur said, "but I’m glad we did it.”
Ilhan's initial vision for Mirabelle wasn't so grand. His original plan called for a restaurant that split the difference between French bistro and fine-dining destination. But the businessman, who cut his teeth with TCBY franchises and airport eateries, decided to go all-in with fine dining once he researched the market further. He was surprised to learn how busy downtown was at night, even after offices closed for the day. High-powered lawyers and lobbyists apparently like to eat and drink in the neighborhood after work.
"We had the time to study [the market] more and more, and this is what was needed," Ilhan said.
If you talk to Ruta and Chin about their Parisian adventures, they'll marvel as much about the service as the food, which remains deeply rooted in French traditions. Everyone in a Michelin-starred dining room, they said, can answer a question about the food or wine, even a junior kitchen member who runs food to the table.
"You really felt the power as soon as you walked in," Ruta said about the restaurants they visited. "Not so much the power as in the suits [who] were in there and all these high-profile people, but just the power of how confident and, service-wise, how well they knew their job."
Jennifer Knowles, the service and wine director for Mirabelle, will be the one tasked with training up servers and bartenders to fine-dining standards. A former wine director at the Jefferson and the Inn at Little Washington, Knowles expects the floor staff to have the same polish no matter what service they work — breakfast, lunch or dinner.
But for now she, and the rest of the Mirabelle staff, are focused just on lunch. Yes, lunch. For the first couple of weeks, Mirabelle will serve only the mid-day meal, a reversal of the standard practice in which a restaurant debuts with dinner service and adds lunch later. The flip was Ruta's idea.
"We’re going to get our accolades based on dinner service because that’s where most people will feel the full effect of dining at Mirabelle," Ruta said. "We don’t want to open for dinner first and put a lot of energy in that, and then have lunch become almost an afterthought. We want lunch to be important."
Even though Mirabelle leans hard on French cuisine, the lunch menu had to include dishes that you wouldn't find at a Michelin-starred restaurant in France, such as a line of sandwiches, including a French-onion-soup variation on Ruta's celebrated cheeseburger, which will now feature Madeira caramelized onions and aged gruyere. Ruta will be the first to tell you that he's not the most qualified person to design and execute a French menu, even if, as a White House cook for nearly a decade, he toiled under chefs who were considered masters of the cuisine.
"I kind of like going back to how I was first trained," Ruta said. "I have all my notebooks from the White House, and it’s just down the road. It all kind of fits together with the concept."
Ruta and Chin's take on French cuisine will be rooted in tradition, but not a slave to it. Ruta's pate en croute, for example, will not be covered in a flaky pastry. Instead, it will feature a side of puff pastry stuffed with vegetables in a mustardy glaze. For one of Chin's desserts, she'll take classic French choux pastry but fill it with caramelized peanut cream and milk chocolate. She calls the dish, Paris Washington. (The tentative lunch menus are below.)
Given its location and Ruta's connection to the White House, Mirabelle might be a dining target for the president. If Donald Trump dined at Mirabelle and asked for a well-done steak, would the kitchen serve it?
Chin pursed her lips and shook her head.
Ruta, a natural diplomat, recalled that "President Reagan ate well-done steak." The chef's own father likes his steak on the medium-well side, he added.
Chin chimed in: "I don't know. There are certain places you can go to get that."
Ruta added with perfect comic timing: "I think the Trump Hotel."
Mirabelle, 900 16th St. NW, 202-506-3833. Opens for lunch on Monday. Breakfast, Sunday brunch and dinner service will launch in the coming months.