Medium Rare: One meal done to perfection

In a city built on democracy and free will, a restaurant designed to eliminate choice might seem an odd fit.

But its refreshing simplicity and limited menu make Medium Rare an intriguing and exceptional new eatery. Opened in late March, this Cleveland Park dining destination delivers on its promise of doing just one thing — steak — very well.

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For co-owner Tom Gregg, however, it’s important that Medium Rare not be confused with a steakhouse. The restaurant is instead fashioned on a Parisian bistro, much like the kind Gregg and his business partner — Mark Bucher, owner of BGR The Burger Joint chain — enjoyed while visiting the City of Light.

“It’s supposed to be sort of an Americanized French restaurant,” Gregg said. It’s “a French restaurant without the pretense, sort of neighborhood feel and fun but still sort of the hustle and bustle of a French bistro.”

From the moment you enter Medium Rare, there is a sense of being transported — if not to Europe, then at the very least away from hectic Washington life.

Nearly everything here is pared-down, including the décor. A dark, low ceiling with exposed beams, red brick walls and simple wood floors give the space a cozy feel. Big picture windows allow lots of light into the two dining areas, where two-person tables can be pushed together or split apart for parties big or small.

Little touches of France creep in throughout, with French written on the bar napkins and the menus. The bathroom has entertaining pick-up lines in French and English piped in, and the table settings — with French dishcloth napkins and low wine glasses — are rustic chic.

There’s a limited alcohol menu at Medium Rare, with just a few beers and five red and five white wine options available. For Gregg, it’s all about making decisions as easy as possible for diners.

“The idea is, you walk in and you don’t have to think about what you’re going to order,” he said. “You can just relax. You’re not going to make a mistake.”

And perusing the menu, you realize you really can’t make a bad choice. There is only one meal available: artisan rustic bread, mixed green salad and prime, dry-aged sirloin cap steak with hand-cut fries and secret sauce.

A server comes by to ask how you prefer your steak cooked, and if there are any vegetarians at the table. Apparently there is a Portobello mushroom alternative off-menu for any non-meat eaters who wander in.

After that, it’s about enjoying simple, good food as it’s brought to you. The artisan rustic bread is crunchy yet soft, a perfect example of bread you might find in a small-town bakery in Europe. Paired with the creamy, salty butter, it’s a straightforward pleasure.

The mixed green salad is as unfussy as greens can get. Tender lettuce, cut tomatoes and a mustard vinaigrette make for a perfect pairing.

But the steak and frites are the main attraction here at Medium Rare. The meat is presented sliced and slathered in the eatery’s secret sauce, a tangy peanut concoction that pairs with the beef perfectly while not overshadowing it.

French fries can be tough to master — cut too thick, they get mealy; cut too thin, they get soggy or hard. But fries at Medium Rare are just right, an ideal mix of crunch and saltiness.

While understated — no garnish in sight — this main course is actually served in quite a creative and unusual way.

The entrée is split in half so that diners can eat at a leisurely pace, without fear of their steak and fries getting cold. As the first portion is finished, a server appears tableside with the rest of the meal on a heated skillet, so your food stays perfectly delicious from start to finish.

“The idea behind it is that the other half will stay warm,” Gregg said. “It’s a fun way where everything is served family-style for the seconds.”

After two healthy portions of steak and fries, plus bread and salad, any thoughts of dessert might be inconceivable. But the sweets here are worth the indulgence, a nod to American favorites like cheesecake and apple pie.

The house specialty hot fudge sundae is big enough for four to share, with decadent vanilla ice cream, nuts and sprinkles. The double chocolate fudge layer cake could hold its own with any in the country, each forkful eliciting smiles and nods.

And then there’s the six-layer carrot cake, a mammoth slice of heaven. The rich cream cheese layered with the soft, moist cake made this the ideal ending to an already enjoyable meal.

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At a prix fixe of $19.50 for the bread, salad and steak with fries, Medium Rare could be considered a steal. But diners should note that that price doesn’t include drinks or desserts.

The set price is slightly lower during weekend brunch, where a few other options round out the menu. The standard bread, salad and steak with fries is still available (although the steak portion is halved compared with dinner) but several breakfast-friendly items are added.

Diners can choose either a fruit salad or a yogurt parfait over the green salad. The fruit salad is pretty standard, but the yogurt mixed with dried fruits and granola is just right for a mid-day starter.

The steak and fries is still there at brunch, but can be topped with a poached egg at extra cost. A benedict is also on the menu, with sliced steak, Portobello mushrooms, poached egg and hollandaise.

It’s a bit of a mishmash of all of Medium Rare’s options, all over its rustic bread. Though satisfying, it’s not nearly as much a standout as the original steak dish.

Three poached eggs with fries are also on the brunch menu, but no eggs, even when poached to perfection, can compete with steak.

While the food is delicious, the décor is warm and inviting, and the wait staff is friendly and prompt, the greatest allure at Medium Rare really is the freedom from decisionmaking.

“In this environment and … economy, keep it very simple but do really well at the one thing that you do,” Greg said in explaining his strategy. “If you can do one thing really well, then people will come.”

Judging by the crowds at Medium Rare, this eatery is definitely doing that one thing right. When asked if they had any plans to expand the eatery to other locations, Gregg was optimistic.

“We’ll see … maybe we’ll find some place on Capitol Hill,” he joked.