French and Indian Not just a war anymore

Few D.C. restaurants in recent memory have opened to the anticipation and fanfare of IndeBleu. After securing coveted real estate across the street from MCI Center about a year ago, an investment group called Enterprise Bleu poured untold millions into the space and lined up a maitre d’ from the Inn at Little Washington and a star international chef to run things.
A look at IndeBleu’s lounge.

After a little more than a month, it appears we can believe the hype.

IndeBleu is essentially two establishments in one. On the ground floor is a swank bar and lounge — really a nightclub sans velvet rope — which already attracts a crowd from happy hour straight through to late night.

Patrons select their cocktails from a foldout pamphlet made to look like a Metro map. The Red Line comprises martinis, the Yellow Line sparkling wine, and so on. Drinks aren’t cheap, ranging up to $14, but the blow is softened some by the exotic ingredients used and the lengthy, often-theatrical preparations.

Hipsters sip either at a long, curved marble bar or, on the other side of the DJ booth, in the sunken lounge that’ll have you dreaming of Jeannie. Warm red colors, pillows, cushions, mattresses that curve into the ceiling and even a swinging sofa lend a hypnotic air to the room. How much are those drinks again? Yes, I’ll have another. Make it two.

A lounge menu is available, but the real culinary action is up the stairs and over a suspension bridge to the main dining room. You also wander past the six-person chefs’ table, an enclosed cylinder that rotates to face either the kitchen or the dining room.

Patrolling the environs is a wait staff whose jeans-and-black-shirt getup belies their professionalism. “There’s the what you do and the how you do it,” says manager Jay Coldren, the Inn at Little Washington veteran. “We focus on the second aspect.”

Dancers from a studio also owned by the company have instructed the staff on moving gracefully. As servers fire each course into the restaurant’s computer system, they gauge the mood of the guest and enter a value from 1 to 10 so that the kitchen and management may act accordingly.

If there was a culinary angle left to be mined in Penn Quarter, IndeBleu’s owners have found it, with Indian-accented French cooking. But it was also up to Coldren to find the right chef for such a concept. After interviewing 240 candidates, he settled on Vikram Garg.

An affable native of India, Garg confessed that in 14 years as a pro he had never worked at an Indian kitchen, only contemporary French restaurants. But “it struck me,” he said, “there are so many spices you can use to enhance it, to bring it to a different dimension.”

He’s augmented French technique as well. For instance, where French cuisine might call for a dish to be baked, Garg uses his tandoori ovens. A shrimp appetizer is marinated in yogurt and goat cheese before being skewered and baked in the tandoor and served over shaved fennel and romaine.

Without exception, every menu item can be deconstructed into its component French and Indian parts. That may even apply to the bread — piping-hot naan, uniquely sprinkled with Proven硬 herbs. It would make a damn fine meal by itself, I kept thinking, at least until Garg would send out his complimentary tasting, usually a rich soup in a tiny mug — carrot and mango or cumin and roasted eggplant.

Cumin again stars in a second course of three spicy scallops, served with salty crisped pancetta and a sweet orange-chicory sauce.

Perhaps because he has so many ingredients at his disposal, Garg has great skill in balancing flavors. The creaminess of lobster and lump crab in a “Lilliputian” tower was complemented by sweet marinated mango and the earthiness of curry oil and pine nuts.

Other standouts included a foie gras sandwich, seared on oily brioche bread and spread with rose-petal marmalade, duck breast with peppered pomegranates and morel risotto, and a seared veal tenderloin with cardamom sweet-bread sauce and a tandoori potato stuffed with cashews and raisins.

Not everything wows, however. An appetizer of veal-stuffed gnocchi was surprisingly bland, and its accompanying champagne-fenugreek sauce was too tangy on one visit, too sweet on another. Other items, such as an apple-French bean salad with tarragon-basil dressing and oven-roasted sea bass on leek pilaf, suffer the same unusual fate — underwhelming flavor from a kitchen with a world of flavors at its disposal.

The food here isn’t cheap by any means, at least when one orders ࠬa carte. But the pre-fixe option, at four courses for $65, beats most of IndeBleu’s fine-dining competitors. Ditto with the wine list. While there are plenty of choices that will separate you from your paycheck, there are numerous wines at reasonable prices.

This is already a spectacular restaurant, and what’s so intriguing is that, still in its infancy, it may yet have room to grow. The tastes of Washington diners will probably be growing with it.