Plaudits: Washingtonian 2011 #7, Washingtonian 2010 #17, 2009 #17, Washingtonian 2008 #19, Washington Post's 2009 Top 50 Restaurants, 2009 RAMMY Chef of the Year - Robert Wiedmaier
Neighborhood: Foggy Bottom
I'll admit it: I'm still at a stage in my life and my career where I do not really make enough money to both support my dining-out habit and do... pretty much anything else. And consequently, there are very few people in my life who have the sort of disposable income to regularly have meals with me at a certain breed of restaurants (which is not an insult, just a commentary on my insanity and financial priorities).
Luckily for me, two of those people are Official Mentors of DCWD Double-L and Double-S with whom Official Co-Writer of DCWD CC and I have shared wonderful meals before (a Top 5 meal at 2941, plus a great dinner at Poste). After conning them into sharing a meal with me, I convinced them to hit up one of my longtime evaders: Marcel's, a restaurant I've lived within at most four blocks of for six years but had never eaten at.
Marcel's is old school. A white-cloth, full-table-setting-purely-for-decoration-when-you-walk-in sort of restaurant. A place, to paraphrase a quote I think I read in a Washingtonian article, where "people think enough of their fellow diners to dress up." Which is why jackets are required for men. At least nominally anyway; they let a guy at the table next to us in with a polo and a hoodie (a hoodie!), but I guess I can't fault any restaurant in these economic times on that one.
Still, the decor reflects a gravity that the jacket rule advances. Marcel's has its modern touches: a sleek looking bar at the front (with a piano player the next night when I returned to pick up something I'd left), with glass panel cupboards for stemware to the side, and a decidedly red glow to the lighting. But aside from that, it's all seemingly straight out of Escoffier France: a curlicue restaurant name on windows backed by lace curtains; a raised floor where a glowing bronze open kitchen is central; red and mustard curtains to separate the dining areas, teardrop chandeliers, and the ubiquitous fleur-de-lis. Seats come in every shape and size, with half-booths and comfortable upholstered chairs everywhere.
The last thing to comment on is the service, which is literally award-winning (or at least nominated - seemingly a James Beard semifinalist or a RAMMY finalist every year). When such platitudes are lauded on a restaurant, whether it's for the food or the service, you almost come in with a cowboy attitude about it, looking to be disappointed. Something in our post-Twitter world that says that confirming widespread opinions doesn't really gain you any traction, that you have to be breaking the big story: "No, the service actually was TERRIBLE." At least that's my self-admitted-narcissist view of it.
But fortunately for my meal, the service was actually impeccable. Look, when you're paying that much for a meal, the little things matter: an impressively knowledgeable server; replacing the silverware on every course; placing all of the dishes down on the table at the same time even if it requires two people; presentation of dishes. It's the little things that make you feel good. I know these things probably happen everywhere, and maybe my attention was drawn by the awards to otherwise commonplace service, but I certainly felt like I was being taken care of. Which is all that really matters in the end.
(note: out of respect to my company and the dim red lighting, there are no pictures for this meal. Sorry.)
At Marcel's, you have a few options: a prix fixe pre-theater menu, or a three-, four-, five-, or seven-course meal picking from the extensive menu, which is grouped into suggested numbered courses. Feeling a little adventurous, we decided on a five courser.
Before all that was the amuse. This was the first restaurant where each person got a different amuse bouche: I ended up with a chunk of curried beef topped with mango chutney, Double-S got a goat cheese croquette, and Double-L received a tuna tartare in a Chinese soup spoon. Sometimes people go overboard with amuses, but these all seemed very simple and tiny (unlike some amuses, which break the one-bite rule). Solid start to the meal.
For my first course, I ordered a gratin of oysters, mussels, and cockles with a saffron glacage (read: icing) and topped with crispy parma ham and trout caviar. This was surprisingly creamy without being overly fishy/salty/overpowering from the seafood. And best of all the caviar added refreshing bursts of flavor to the dish.
Double-L had an English pea soup with veal meat balls and micro greens. Sometimes restaurants add a million different things and try to outflavor things, and sometimes they boil them down to the single essence of a dish; this was one of the latter. This was a simple and clear presentation of pea flavor, a clarity that was both filling and refreshing. Didn't even need the veal meatballs, but they added to it nonetheless. Excellent.
Double-S had tuna tataki with pickled lotus root and mandarin vinaigrette. I think this was one of the few dishes that was decent but ultimately forgettable. I think it was strongly a factor of it being outside the normal cuisine of the restaurant.
My second course was a veal tortellini with sauteed burgundy snails, a sweet onion puree, and a red wine essence. This was my forgettable dish of the night. The pasta was just not as on point as would have been expected from a place like this: a little too pre-al dente, and didn't have the freshness of a housemade pasta. The snails and puree though were nice.
Double-L had a seared diver scallop with a scallop ceviche and baby bok choy in a honey coconut cream. I have to admit I didn't have a bite of this dish, but what I did have was a bite of Double-S's seared foie gras with duck confit and fruit on brioche. A perfectly cooked classic.
I ordered the duck breast with honeycrisp apple and spinach. Oh man, I've had some good duck before in my life. But this was absolutely brilliantly cooked, and I have to believe that it ranks up there with 2941 as the best I've ever head. With pink meat in the center and crispy skin and perfect levels of fat, it was bursting with all sorts of flavor. Definitely one of my favorites of the night.
Once again, I missed Double-L's dish (Chesapeake rockfish, cauliflower florets, roasted turnips, English pea puree), but had Double S's; she rocked a pheasant breast and leg with a foie gras mousse, baby brussels sprouts and turnips in a thyme cream. I only had a tiny bit of this, but I thought it was appropriately complex with a variety of flavors and textures.
Here were the three heavy hitters, and all three could be described in very similar ways: tender red meat but subtlely flavorful, hearty dishes that used earthy or game-y proteins, toned down their gaminess, and paired them with seasonally appropriate vegetables. Between Double S's bison strip loin in a roasted red pepper demi glace with wild rice and spring onions, Double L's venison loin in a beet and bramble sauce with root vegetable puree and baby spinach, and my lamb tenderloin wrapped in phyllo in a cumin madeira sauce with duxelles and baby carrots, they all wrapped up a fabulous meal in a stunningly composed meal filled with clarity.
Double-S and Double-L both had the chocolate souffle with hazelnut ice cream, which was a solid presentation of a classic dish. But it was my dessert that I think won the night: crepes suzette in a Grand Marnier sauce with vanilla ice cream. Maybe it's because I've never had crepes suzette before, but this got me in a such a real and visceral way. Sweet in a way that crept up on you, but in such a silky and bright way. Perfect ending to the meal.
An instant Top 10 meal. Hands down.
Food Rating: ***** (out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Business
Bar Rating: Quiet Drinks
Cost: $$$$$ (out of 5) (more than $100 for two)
Pairing: Of course these things happen only after I begin looking to move out of the neighborhood. Head over to the brand spanking new West End Cinema, an independent theater that just opened on 23rd St. Like an E Street Cinema West, it shows everything from Oscar nominee for Best Picture, The Social Network to Oscar winner for Best Documentary, Inside Job.