By Elana Schor - 05/09/12 11:28 PM EDT
On the 12th birthday of the beloved local bistro that bears her name, chef Ann Cashion defined her ethos to Nation’s Restaurant News as “sophisticated home cooking.” The type of food at Cashion’s Eat Place, she added, “you don’t typically find outside the home.”
The comedic humility of Cashion’s self-assessment — how many home cooks could replicate her chic New American cuisine? — masks a truth about her restaurant: For its regulars, it remains a home away from home, where a night out can deliver you to culinary heights but still feel accessible and unfussy. But Cashion had better watch out, because her mantle is being usurped with a French twist just a few storefronts away. Welcome to Washington, Mintwood Place.
But the ambience owes as much to pubs as it does to the bohemian Manhattan dining halls that feel stuck in the Victorian era. Everyone on staff at Mintwood, from the second-string hostess to servers at neighboring tables, makes eye contact and genuinely attentive inquiries. And if you’d rather not engage with them, well, there’s a lot of great food to get to know.
Owner Saied Azali, an Adams Morgan fixture and owner of the neighboring Perry’s, smartly handed his toque to Cedric Maupillier, the sous chef at Citronelle whom Michel Richard tapped five years ago to open his less ritzy Pennsylvania Avenue haunt, Central. Maupillier has taken the cheeky style of Central — where the house-made Kit Kat dessert is done one better by Mintwood’s flaming Baked Alaska — and tempered the swagger a bit.
To wit, Maupillier offers escargot, but only after erasing their somewhat slimy texture in a coat of nutty, herb-spiked corn flour to make snail hush puppies. A miniature skillet of these gems, with tangy mustard sauce on the side, or a trio of red-hued deviled eggs makes for a perfect first course while you nibble at warm bread and sip one of the Prohibition-era cocktails.
Those cocktails can be a touch strong for the refined flavors of Maupillier’s cooking, but the wine list and quartet of beers on draft include some standout choices. What’s more, the bar is refreshingly amenable to changing up its routine. If the herbaceous snap of the gin-based Woodrow Wilson does not appeal, consider asking nicely for a resuscitation of the Scrooge, a kicked-up Dark and Stormy that recently left the drink menu.
Migrating to a second course at Mintwood requires some tough choices, not least because the portions and price tags of some entrees can make them feel small by comparison with the appetizers. One stop not to be missed is the “mountain pie,” a Napoleon of butter lettuce and jeweled beets crowned with an oven-fired patty of goat cheese creamy enough to make more than one set of eyes roll back. This is the satisfying meal in salad’s clothing that many female diners hope for during nights out.
Equally stellar is the grilled soft-shell crab that arrives perching on a bed of creamy, earthy quinoa and melt-in-your-mouth Vidalia onions, a Chesapeake take on the couscous dishes that Parisians long ago borrowed from Morocco. This dish, like the popular steak tartare topped with fried potato nubs, is available in an entrée as well as starter-sized portion.
The unlikely excellence of a Francophone soft-shell is a recurring theme at Mintwood, where even pairings that feel out of left field on the menu acquire a lusty sense of place on the plate. A second course of plump, succulent grilled asparagus, for example, snuggles up to a lemon-sized fold of the gooey cream-based mozzarella known as burrata. A pinch of minced spring garlic on the top adds kick to a dish that one wants to slow down on, like a good book.
The hits keep on coming among Maupillier’s main courses, particularly a skate wing cooked to tender, flaky perfection — no small feat, given the fish’s flat shape — and served on a chickpea pancake known as socca that rarely makes the trek across the Atlantic to America’s French restaurants. A piquant, though somewhat oily, eggplant caponata completes the picture.
Mintwood also does not disappoint those seeking a more traditional French entrée, offering a juicy, browned-to-perfection chicken breast roasted in the newly en-vogue cast-iron skillet method. The roasted pork for two and duck breast are also proven crowd pleasers for a clientele that tends toward couples on low-key date nights and 30-something groups.
But since Maupillier has loosened up his toque, tossing his emerald broccolini with smoky mushrooms and toothsome whole-grain risotto for one of several superlative vegetarian specials, why not push the boundaries yourself? Anyone intrigued to see a Bolognese sauce on a French menu should take the literal plunge into Mintwood’s perfectly chewy tagliatelle, double-crowned in what feels like a pound of fragrant, memorable beef-and-pork ragu as well as freshly grated parmesan cheese that lands like snow on the mountaintop of pasta.
This seemingly simple pasta is a statement on the power of fresh ingredients and a deft hand in the kitchen, delivering so much pleasure to the palate that one of my companions was as excited to bring home half of her portion as she was to try it in-house. (Worth noting: the Bolognese is one of Maupillier’s only dishes that can hold up inside a to-go box.)
In fact, the tagliatelle makes a charming opposites-attract couple with that baked Alaska, a pink-and-ivory contest-winner of a dessert that features strawberry ice cream and almond pastry ringed in obedient peaks of fluffy meringue. Sprinkled with chartreuse liqueur and set aflame at table, the dessert could easily guest-star on “Mad Men.”
Foodies prone to wondering how chefs pull off their feats might be tempted to look up Baked Alaska recipes once they get home. And therein lies the magic of Mintwood Place: Beneath the fashionable exterior, it truly is the type of sophisticated home cooking that Cashion would recognize.