By Amanda Grace Johnson - 05/05/10 10:34 PM EDT
France might be 5,000 miles away, but Washington denizens can get a taste of one of the world’s culinary motherlands by taking a quick trip downtown.
Plume, a relative newcomer to the local culinary scene, has quickly made a name for itself among some of the city’s finest establishments, launching to the reputation platform of seasoned restaurants like CityZen and Obelisk.
The sophistication continues as servers use tongs to offer up embroidered napkins. On each table rest silver ducks and swans that appear to be ornate salt- and peppershakers but turn out to be just silver ducks and swans. The details here are in the decorations.
And they’re also in the food, if you can even call it that. It’s more like art, really, and a few plates even follow the visual arts’ rule of thirds — the foie gras trio being the first and best of these.
About that foie gras, if it isn’t art, I don’t know what is. Three preparations of the delicacy show just how creative Plume can be while still adhering to tradition. I’m curious (and apprehensive) at the first preparation’s speckled-green exterior. Imagine my pleasant surprise to find, upon my first bite, that it’s crusted with pistachios and Pop Rocks. The second — and best — rendition is seared to a deep ruby-brown. With a crisped flesh, the cut reminds me of steak on the outside and churned butter on the inside. Braised pears provide its lovely nest. In the third serving, an edible gold leaf makes the first of many appearances, but an otherwise excellent, creamy paté is upstaged by its outstanding neighbors.
House-cured salmon also makes good on the artistic principle. Three small disks, each topped with salty, rich caviar, balance delicately on blini that claims to house horseradish, though that flavor never quite comes to the fore.
The feuilleté (puff pastry) with caramelized sweetbreads is full of surprises. It’s not decorated with spinach but chervil, and the saucer of velouté ( or “velvet sauce”) poured over the dish is spiked with vanilla. The aromatic sauce doesn’t quite compute with the veal offal, but its separate arrival saves it from harm or foul. And though this hearty and indulgent dish appears on the first-course menu, it could certainly suffice as a meal on its own.
That’s especially true when taking into consideration the multiple amuse-bouches, palate cleansers, breads and hors d’oeuvres the French-accented servers bring to the table. Parmesan gougéres seem to be the restaurant’s staple tiny bite, while crusty sesame olive bread is its big brother. A spoonful of crab salad tastes sweet and fresh, but a tiny bit of shell is an unpleasant surprise. Velvety white bean soup on a chilly night quickly washes the bad taste away, but it’s outshone on a warmer evening by delicate roasted olive oil gazpacho.
Because my companion ordered the celery root soup as her appetizer, the staff brings an amuse-bouche — a not-quite-al dente ravioli stuffed with spinach and sprayed with Parmesan foam. As for that celery root soup: While it’s often difficult to find much flavor in cream-based broths, the vegetable truly does stand out on this occasion.
After these rich starters, it’s hard to believe there’ll be room for a main course. But when perfect, rosy rabbit loin shows up atop fragrant braised leeks on a plate drizzled with savory Armagnac brandy jus, your stomach will happily make more room. The same can be said for the crab risotto with its bouillabaisse-like sauce and edible gold leaf, though there’s not much crab to speak of. Still, I can’t keep my fork away — though it’s my companion’s dinner.
Plume is more generous with its other seafood offerings. There’s much more than enough of both meat and originality in the Lobster Navarin (a stew, of sorts). Its garam masala emulsion is wildly successful as pungent cloves and nutmeg enhance the meat’s ocean sweetness. I’m not crazy about the stew’s gold beets, which look like an afterthought accompaniment, especially compared across the table to my companion’s gnocchi side on the gateaux-of-sole entree. Between the soft gnocchi and airy cake of fish, it’s as if we’ve been eating delicious feather pillows all night.
If it’s humanly possible to spring for dessert, it is by all means worth the struggle. The Chocolate Variation, when plated next to the establishment’s complimentary petits fours, appears to be the charming little dessert’s older, prettier, more popular sister. The petits fours comprise a chocolate-raspberry torte, chocolate sandwich cookie, white chocolate orange truffle and dark chocolate truffle. The Chocolate Variation bears a bitter cocoa sorbet, chocolate macaroon, “espuma” that’s reminiscent of melty gelato and an orange tartlet dusted with cocoa and pinned with that ever-present gold leaf. And be careful when ordering coffee with yours — it’s certainly good coffee, and the elaborate silver-pot service is undoubtedly appreciated, but the decaf I requested was just the opposite (and I have the receipt from a 3 a.m. convenience store trip to prove it).
It might be well-advised to wander after dessert over to Quill, the Jefferson Hotel’s sleek bar and lounge. On the way there, feel free to pop into some of the lavish hotel’s sitting rooms, where you can take your drinks for more private conversation on the bar’s busier nights. A warm fireplace lights up the wood-paneled book room, which features wall-to-wall collections of presidential biographies and papers suspended above cocoa-colored leather couches and chairs.
Quill’s cocktail menu has small but quality selections of beer, scotch, wine and the like. What’s special here is the variety of Madeira liqueurs served, including some dating back to the 1800s. But any tipple is likely to set you back a pretty penny — most cocktails ring up at $15, and some of the Madeiras go up to $250.
For a special occasion, Plume can certainly be worth the splurge. And it’s still a lot more affordable than a trip to Paris.