Daniel Boulud serves up ‘French-meets-American comfort food’ at City Center.
By Donna Drejza
On a winter afternoon you find yourself sipping a deep Cabernet Franc at a lively bar, waiting for your love. But is it the one who got away—or the one walking in the door?
That should get you in the mood for DBGB— Washington’s hot new French Brasserie opened by world master chef Daniel Boulud.
His Relais & Chateaux designated “Daniel” restaurant in New York is one of only a dozen in the United States to win the coveted 3-star ranking by Michelin— and to win several years in a row. He has won countless awards – including several by James Beard – for his exquisitely refined craft.
And now he has returned to Washington.
While DBGB Kitchen and Bar is one of the most casual of his restaurants, this is the best of both worlds for Washingtonians: master chef cuisine at bistro prices. The GB part of the name remains a mystery; my theory is it stands for “Bibendum Gourmand” which is a Michelin guide term for restaurants offering “good food at moderate prices.”
I met with the Boulud about his decision to open in the District. It’s a homecoming of sorts, as this is where he first landed when he came from France in 1980, to work as a private chef. “Twenty years or thirty years ago, they had nothing like this in terms of restaurant choices.”
Boulud says the goal was to offer something affordable. “The concept is: “French meets American comfort food.” I knew he didn’t have a restaurant in Paris, and asked if he was planning on one. He said “not likely, but perhaps Lyon,” the town where he grew up.
Does he ever do surprise visits to his culinary empire? He answers, “No, we pay people to do that.” When I raised my hand fervently for this job, he looked at me and just smiled. Drat! I would have been good at that.
Unlike his more formal white table cloth restaurants, the décor of DBGB is rustic French austerity. Located in the uber-chic CityCenter complex at 950 H street, one enters a modern glass atrium, crammed with wooden tables, mirrored walls, and a dash of red. The back upper room offers some semi-cozy booths and a charming display of plate-ware as an ode to famous chefs.
On my tasting visit, the staff graciously welcomed our odd party of five, which included a 5- and 11-year-old.
Daniel Boulud charmed the children and personally took their dinner order. The 5 year old girl asked for “mac and cheese!” while her sophisticated brother pretended he didn’t know her. Not wanting to disappoint the girl, Daniel Boulud ordered up a special order of toasted white pasta and cheese for her. We simply had to try it, what with our sampling mission and all. As the girl’s father distracted her, I made a move with my spoon —moments before she dipped her paws into the bowl and slurped up every last nugget.
The boy ordered an Angus burger, which looked robust; as he was on to us and he had a ready steak knife, we didn’t even try to get a sample.
Despite a plethora of capable staff, the famous, yet humble chef went around the table to take the rest of our orders. I ordered the fois gras terrine with plum, quinoa, toasted brioche. It was so heavenly that it was hard to contain my “aahhh” so as not to sound orgasmic, especially in front of the children.
Then we ordered a series of items to share.
The Steak Tartare: a perfect cylinder of fresh black Angus beef with egg. The father had river trout wrapped in Pancetta sage hen of the wood, pomme ecrasee ; still with the crispy skin, the fish was perfectly cooked to butterly perfection ($28). The children’s mother had the Tuna Crudo with Harissa –sesame sauce, cucumber radish and crispy rice and watermelon. It had a nice Asian bite and the watermelon helped to extinguish the heat. I had the roasted duck breast with scallion, and roasted beets. It had a perfectly pink interior with a savory, crunchy duck skin ($31). I wonder if they would just give me a plate of the crunchy skin.
They have seven types of sausages including the Thai sausages nice bite with port lemongrass, red curry, green papaya, basil fried rice, peanut an quail egg. This had powerful, yet perfect fusion of textures and flavors.
The country pate was hearty slice of rural France, which reminded me of a winter drive I took through France a long time ago. We also tried the Crispy Egg, a crunchy combination with Broccoli rabe and anchoiad sauce. Next time, I think I’m just going to ask for a bowl of this dreamy concoction.
Unlike other new places in Washington, wines by the glass here are reasonable. Whites start at $10 for a Punta Crena, from Lumassina Italy to $15 for a Lieu Dit from Santa yNez. Reds are also in the $10-$16 range. I had a Charles Joguet Cabernet Franc from Chinon, France (well, maybe two).
The worldwide wine list consists of around 150 wines starting at $38 per bottle. Try some from “Les In connus” —off the beaten path, such as: the 2010 Thierry Puzelat, Touraine, France for $58. Celebrating? Try the Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, Saint-Julien, France.
DBGB offer specialty cocktails such as Elixir Bohemian, with Becherovka and winter apricots. When you order another, just say it has medicinal properties and leave it at that. They offer an array of craft beers with 15 on draft, such as “Mamas Little Yella Pils” $6. Worth it just to be able to say the name.
For dessert I had a nice fig tarte; a clever choice as there was no need to fend off the children for this strictly adult palate offering with quartered figs and red wine. We then shared the Baked Alaska: a Chartreuse imbued pyromaniac’s delight with a refreshingly tart pink and green center.
Well, who can complain when Daniel Boulud himself takes your order. (Yes, he got everything right.) When he’s not there, he has layers of management and executive and pastry chefs, —and waiters, to keep thing up to par. For the Washington location, he selected Executive Chef Ed Scarpone to take command. Beside his studies in the U.S., Ed Scarpone studied in Thailand and Singapore—which explains some of the Asian influences at this French American bistro.
Daniel Boulud’s other locations are the more formal Café Bouluds, and Maison Bouluds, which include London, Singapore, Toronto, Montreal, Las Vegas, Miami, Palm Beach, Boston, and several in New York. I am partial to the one in Palm Beach with its jewel box of melon colors decor. I also love the The Café Boulud in the Toronto Four Seasons, which offers wines from Stratus—the first fully LEED certified winery in the world.
Donna Drejza is the author of Palm Beach Busybodies, and Soul Mates and the 102.