By Amanda McDougall - 05/27/10 09:04 PM EDT
On the southeast corner of 16th and K streets NW is your living room — if your living room were outfitted by famed restaurant architect David Rockwell; if you had a wine cellar boasting of 6,000 bottles; and if your house chef were hand-picked by the legendary Alain Ducasse.
Most likely that’s not your living room. But at Adour in the St. Regis Hotel, it could be for a night.
It’s no accident that Adour has such a polished touch. The restaurant is one of only three in the U.S. that can claim renowned French chef Alain Ducasse as their proprietor. One of the most accomplished, Michelin-starred chef-restaurateurs in the world, the bespectacled, iconic chef is lauded for his uncanny ability to put just the right team of people together at each of his restaurants to maintain his high standards — and galaxy of stars.
Ducasse’s concept for Adour stems from his provenance in southwestern France, near the Adour River. Named for the place of his culinary awakening, the Adour mission is to awaken the American palate to the marvels of food and wine. So as much as the restaurant’s look and feel is made to impress, so is its wine program.
Wine Director Ramon Narvaez, previously at Marcel’s, has been carefully curating the 750-bottle wine list since the restaurant’s opening in September 2008. The list leans heavily French and American — as it should, given both Ducasse’s and Executive Chef Julien Jouhannaud’s French backgrounds, and the restaurant’s residence in the capital city. (Narvaez also admits a personal obsession with Burgundy and Champagne.) But there’s still room for a bit of exploration in Old and New World wine stalwarts, like Italy, Spain, Argentina and Australia.
But like the stainless steel and glass wine vaults that carefully control temperature and humidity, the wine list isn’t just for show. Narvaez selects wines specifically for their terroir (or expression of origin) and for their ability to meld with Chef Jouhannaud’s seasonal and classical French-based cuisine.
Jouhannaud and Narvaez work closely to develop both the dishes and their corresponding wine pairings. (Each dish has a white and red to go with it.) Leave yourself in Narvaez’s hands, and he’ll guide you through a multi-glass tasting or suggest a half-decanter or bottle to accompany you throughout your meal.
As for the menu, the nightly special appetizers are the stars: One week featured a faultlessly crisp tempura soft-shell crab accompanied by a Southeast Asian-style green papaya salad with a just-right peppery burn; another was an asparagus and morel mushroom dish with asparagus velouté sauce that was fresh, woodsy and lavish — exactly what you want from such fleeting seasonal ingredients.
The English pea soup has small nuggets of white ricotta salata and crunchy croutons, and its vivid green color and sweetly verdant flavor are an easy way to start a meal. For something richer and warmer, the spring vegetable cookpot is a solid choice, with a blend of morels, wild ramps, snow peas and asparagus, cooked until almost melting together.
The foie gras is seared to fatty perfection, and its tart rhubarb compote cuts, as it should, through the richness of the foie. However, the hearts of palm are an odd accessory in the dish. Similarly, one night, the black tiger shrimp cocktail had succulent, sweet shrimp but a touch too much salt and a horseradish royale that was overly stiff and slightly grainy in texture.
The main entrees are less adventurous than the appetizers and tend to err more on the side of subtlety than bright and brazen flavors. There’s no lack of skilled cooking technique, but perhaps just an overly cautious palate. The duck breast with lavender honey, turnips and dolce forte sauce sounded more flavorful than it was, though the duck was cooked to juicy pinkness, as requested.
Regardless of how many dishes you start with, whatever you do, save room for dessert. Pastry Chef Fabrice Bendano, a Parisian by birth but a longtime D.C. resident, makes traditional French desserts with flawless technique and an ideal balance of sweetness and acidity.
If you think you don’t have room for anything else, get the hazelnut soufflé anyway. The towering marvel of egg whites, sugar, flour and hazelnuts arrives at the table hot, puffy and beckoning to be broken into. Served with an orange sorbet and granité, the soufflé is sweet, nutty and light as air.
The Our Baba is another success and a Ducasse classic (his take on the rum Baba). Bendano bakes the little yeast cake to a pillowy splendor; it’s split tableside and inoculated with Armagnac and softly whipped cream. If fruit is a must in your pastry course, Bendano’s Spring Vacherin is where to get it. It features slabs of brittle vanilla meringue that fence in a short tower of Chantilly cream, raspberry sorbet and raspberry coulis. It’s a creamy, fruity, crunchy delight.
Like in any Ducasse restaurant, be prepared for a hefty tab when the check arrives. The hand-picked wine, classical technique-driven cuisine, impeccable service and ideal ambience come at a price. You can trim the expense by picking your way through the menu with the half-portions, or you can do this just to sample more of the dishes (recommended). And if you overindulge in the food or wine, remember that just upstairs from that David Rockwell-designed living room is a bedroom that can be yours for a night, too.