Cedric Maupillier’s Convivial bistro successfully balances a dual identity while living up to its hype.
“I hate traditionalists,” Cedric Maupillier says. “I like to open my mind and think of better ways to do things.” These entrepreneurial words ring true for any diner who samples Maupillier’s handiwork at his six-month-old Convivial. At the French bistro in Shaw, don’t expect to find a classic coq au vin on the menu. Instead prepare your palate for the chef’s ingenious American take on the dish – tender and crisp fried chicken topped with hearty vegetables and a red wine glaze that explodes with flavor or “Umami,” as Maupillier describes it.
At the core of Maupillier’s Convivial menu is nostalgia for his French hometown of Toulon, sandwiched between Marseille and Saint-Tropez. Cafeteria meals that may seem offbeat to an everyday American, including beef tongue and liver, were the norm for the French pupil growing up.
The communal element of dining also stood out to young Cedric. Every Sunday meant gathering around a big table for a meal prepared by grand-mère. The memory, as he recounts it, sounds quite convivial indeed! After a stint with the local baker and eventually years of paying his dues at Michelin-starred French restaurants, Maupillier was ready for America – a place that had always intrigued him. Whether it was his love of John Wayne and Westerns or his interest in America’s Olympic successes, he always wanted to make a place in the U.S.
When Maupillier planned the Convivial concept, it was nonetheless essential that he stay true to his French heritage. The balance he achieves is a delicate one. He masterfully prepares lamb tongue in a moussaka style that keeps diners grounded with a familiar Mediterranean flavor profile. For those who can’t decipher between a vadouvan or a picholine, he has created a food lexicon to accompany each menu. The amenity is a way to compromise with less knowledgeable guests without dumbing down the menu.
Maupillier doesn’t concern himself with conservative traditionalists who may turn their noses up on his playful renderings of classic dishes. He is much more inspired by the younger generation of self-proclaimed foodies, who want to be taken on a culinary rollercoaster ride of bold flavors. “If you take people out of their comfort zone slightly, not fully, and they leave satisfied then everyone has fun – the chef especially because he’s trying something a bit different.” The way Maupillier sees it, combining French and American cuisine is the best of both cultures. Having earned U.S. citizenship earlier this year, he too is a product of both places.
“This is who I am,” he says of his new wave cuisine. “I’m free to do what I want.”
It doesn’t get any more American than that.
WHAT TO ORDER:
Latkes: Small crispy potato medallions served under a bed of celery root topped with thin slices of dry cured lamb.
Pickled Rockfish: Citrus-spiked whitefish accompanied by green papaya, avocado, passion fruit and radish.
Coq au Vin: This buzzy dish hits the mark.
Convivial, 801 O St., NW, Washington, D.C. 202-525-2870 ($8 – $22)
This article appeared in the Summer issue of Washington Life: