Convivial restaurant review: Serving up sublime renditions of classic French dishes

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Unrated during the pandemic.

Convivial in Washington has been open six years — practically middle age for restaurants. Owner Cedric Maupillier knows he can’t cook in place if he wants to keep his doors open in a city that, despite a pandemic, continues to mint plenty of exciting places to eat.

“I want to make a statement,” says the son of Provence, 45, whose restaurant launched with a French American repertoire and “medium” plates. “We’re still here, and we’re doing something no one else is doing in town.”

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Oui, chef. In a grab for attention in a crowded market, Maupillier recently served wild hare from Scotland, about as labor-intensive a dish as anywhere considering the game meat is filleted and deboned, with parts turned into sausage and parts turned into a roulade containing said sausage, then braised in cognac, red wine and hare stock — a three-day process. The dish, draped in a sauce made black and intense with chocolate and blood, was offered for $48 but should have been priced $20 more, considering the ingredients and effort, says the chef, who paired the entree with broad housemade noodles topped with shaved black truffles.

The hare, served throughout December, was notable for both its Old World richness and words of warning on the menu: “May contain buckshot.”

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I loved the dish, and not simply because it was different. Kudos to a chef who’s willing to take risks amid restaurant headlines that seem to get more dire by the week and who’s digging deep into his arsenal to attract an audience. Convivial deserves to be busier than it is — Maupillier, a disciple of the late Michel Richard of Citronelle fame, is one of the region’s best chefs — but forces other than the pandemic aren’t helping. When I dropped by the Shaw draw for takeout earlier this month, boards covered a couple windows that had been shot out on New Year’s Eve — hardly the first impression restaurants want to make.

Inside is a different story. Winter is addressed with hot libations that make me wonder why more restaurants aren’t offering mulled wine and grog Americaine, butter-washed rum, cognac, Cointreau and lemon: drinks as long johns. Warm bread and soft butter open dinner, and how nice to hear the bread crackle at the touch.

Then the appetizers start coming and you congratulate yourself for having made the decision to dine here. Sliced raw bluefin tuna is a blushing pink canvas for a neat hedge of minced green beans, tomatoes and olives. As you’re eating the artwork, ignited with capers and anchovies, you understand why the chef applied “Nicoise” to the carpaccio. A hanger-on from Convivial’s early days, steamed diced leeks arrive beneath a white-and-yellow carpet of grated cooked egg, Barbie-size croutons and micro-mustard greens. The sweetness of the leeks is balanced by the punch of Dijon vinaigrette in the memorable salad.

One of the reasons we go to restaurants is to eat food we wouldn’t make for ourselves — say, crayfish quenelles, another example of how Maupillier, whose teammates include his wife, Dawn, 38, and chef de cuisine Aaron Daniels, also 38, is looking back at the bistro classics. The quenelle, an ivory round of delicate custard formed from fish and cream, dares you not to take its photo. Bright orange trout roe shimmers from a dimple in the quenelle, which rises from a burnt-orange moat of lobster bisque dotted with buttery sauteed crayfish. For something that originated as peasant food, a way to use leftovers, the dish is surprisingly elegant.

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Hare is no more (“We’re at the mercy of the hunter,” says Daniels), but pigeon hasn’t flown the coop. To split the dish is to see layers of green cabbage, foie gras mousse and squab (young pigeon) — a labor of love — beneath a veneer of puff pastry. Marie-Antoine Carême, the legendary chef who professionalized French cuisine in the 19th century, would be proud.

While the restaurant is best experienced in person — the attentive service defines the name of the place, where my tendency is to perch at the central bar — its takeout is superb. Dishes you might not think to order turn out to travel well from Maupillier’s kitchen to yours.

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Onion soup, for instance, is a container of vegetable broth and caramelized onions and another container of semi-melted cheeses, unlabeled but bound with a rubber band to let you know they’re meant to be together in a bowl. (The broth, bold with juniper and thyme, is meatless. Part of its umami is explained by soy sauce in the mix.) Seafood stew presents well, too. One container is a treasure trove of prawns, steamed mussels and a trio of fish (red snapper, dorade and monkfish); a small plastic tub contains the liquid, a lip-smacker coaxed from tomatoes, wine and seemingly a sea of fish bones. Obvious to fans of bouillabaisse, the rouille is destined for the flat crouton. Assembly at home is a snap.

I’ve had Convivial’s thick pork chop at both the restaurant and at home and have to say, there’s no difference between the fists of roasted meat bedded on chunky potatoes, topped with oyster mushrooms and draped with a glossy charcutière sauce made with mustard, wine and chopped cornichons. Regardless of where you slice into the entree, it’s enormously satisfying. Quinoa “porridge” looks and tastes better than that sounds. Roasted mushrooms, carrots and turnips atop a bed of soft grains are as rib-sticking as any meat on the menu. (Only after I tucked in did I figure out what to do with a container of crisp baked kale: garnish the quinoa. A label on the package would have helped.)

If there’s a restaurant where you ought to order dessert right now, it’s this one, which claims Mark Courseille as pastry chef, whose last restaurant position was at the private Petit Bouchon within the French Embassy. His selection of almost a dozen desserts — a Gallic roll call that includes creme brulee, chocolate mousse and profiteroles — would be astonishing even outside a pandemic.

Everything I’ve tried is a class act. Here’s the spot to find a lighter-than-usual chocolate souffle, a seductive tarte tatin and a dessert that Maupillier had his colleague create to honor the owner’s mother, stuck in France for the past two years and a fan of pears Belle Helene. Courseille’s “Poire Belle Michele” is a pear-shaped beauty fashioned from vanilla mousse and poached fruit, robed in chocolate and perched on a crumble of almonds and white chocolate.

My point? From first bite to last, contemporary or classic, Convivial is appointment chewing.

801 O St. NW. 202-525-2870. convivialdc.com. Open: Takeout, delivery and indoor dining 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Patio seating is available at temperatures above 40 degrees. Prices: Appetizers $14 to $19, main courses $18 to $45. Sound check: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: Two sets of doors precede the entrance; restrooms are ADA-compliant. Pandemic protocols: The owner says his entire staff is fully vaccinated.

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