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Pickled deviled eggs; Photography by Greg Powers

French Kiss

by George W. Stone | DC magazine | March 30, 2012

Atmosphere is essential, and few neighborhoods pine for inspiring dining spaces the way Adams Morgan does. That is, unless you consider its frat-mosphere of foot-long pizza wedges to be endearing. Things weren’t always so grim. Two decades ago, 18th Street blazed with edible innovation. José Andrés, Cathal Armstrong, Yannick Cam, Roberto Donna and Ann Cashion launched their careers by whipping up a feeding frenzy here. As they moved on, the Jell-O shots moved in.

But there’s a new kind on the block, Mintwood Place, and it aims to be a game-changer. Chef Cedric Maupillier’s signature escargot hush puppies—crispy, garlicky morsels fried to a golden hue (and served with a satiny cream sauce)—pave the way for an eclectic bistro menu that flirts in French, but satisfies in farm-to-table American style. Are those deviled eggs tickled pink because they’re excited to see you? No, they’re pickled to the brink, bringing a tang to the table. And show me a nonvegetarian who can resist the iron-skillet temptation of maple-sugar, paprika-spiced pork cracklins. These are among the wickedly good “nibbles” that have raised the bar (at the bar) in Adams Morgan.

Within its first months, this spirited space, cleverly kitted-out in reclaimed wood, Industrial Age ironwork and decorative antiques, has become a magnet for the neighborhood’s urban dwellers. Not the laptop campers who colonize Tryst, but those who call this ’hood home —from silver foxes to the stroller rollers. This is why its menu features both a sophisticated Provençal oven-roasted dorade, rubbed with fennel pollen and served with braised fennel and Mediterranean olives, and simple grilled cheese with fries for the kids. High ambitions from the kitchen, and high chairs for the budding gourmands.

Mintwood Place’s bistro-like menu adheres to egalitarian ideals. For every heavenly rabbit—a succulent and complicated preparation, roasted with prunes and served over creamy polenta—there’s a humble hamburger (though at $16, this fairly good bacon-cheeseburger is no bargain). And it isn’t unlikely to find exalted ingredients and down-to-earth value in the same dish, as in the cassoulet, served in an incendiary earthenware crock. It’s packed with enough sedimentary pork belly, sausage and duck confit for two hungry eaters. Beneath a bread crumb and cracklin’ crust, the cassole’s palate-smackingly savory cannellini beans are the true treasures. I found my fork picking over the protein bombs in favor of these leguminous counterparts. Does that make me a vegetarian?

A starter of smoked sturgeon staged atop celeriac slaw was a dud—it tasted like a deconstructed California roll—but truly seasonal dishes, such as early spring’s American shad roe with lardo and black trumpet mushrooms, won’t stick around for long, which is precisely what delights chef Maupillier. Although only 35 years old—eight years of which have been spent in the states—the chef gained a generation of footing under Fabio Trabocchi at Maestro and Michel Richard at both Citronelle and Central before launching Medium Rare, Cleveland Park’s steak-it-or-leave-it hot spot. His new venture presents a “playground” for creativity, as he says. “We didn’t open Mintwood Place to duplicate it somewhere else,” says Maupillier in a thick French accent. “This is a melting pot of who I am—the chefs who have influenced me, the neighborhood we’re in and the diners who come here.”

While defending against charges of egoism—hey, he’s French… and a chef!—Maupillier would like locals to know that his cast-iron chicken is the city’s best. When a chef stakes his reputation on a such a standard, you know you’re dealing with a pro. His earthy version, redolent of olive oil and sage, is a rustic charmer: crispy on the outside, tender and juicy inside, and precisely what you can’t cook at home… unless you have an applewood- and oak-fired oven that’s hotter than hell. And, naturally, there’s frog legs, dressed in a black walnut romesco sauce: Few can deny this warm-hearted restaurant’s Gallic roots.

Except, perhaps, for its proprietor, Saied Azali. “It’s not a French bistro. You can just call it a neighborhood place,” says the restaurateur, best known for Perry’s, located above Mintwood Place. It took Azali three years to turn a timeworn grocery store into a cozy space that draws energy from the bustling sidewalk and glows gold at night. Repurposed wood abounds: the dining room ceiling is lined with recovered white oak floorboarding; a center island is clad in old barn siding; and the bar is adorned with cypress wood mushroom board from a fungus farm in Vermont. Cushy reclaimed leather booths assure that you’ll stick around for a while. Azali’s aim in opening his eatery was both generous and shrewd. He wants to return Adams Morgan to its former glory as a dining destination. And he wanted to make sure a competing bar didn’t take root under Perry’s.

When my recent dinner passed the three-hour mark, I decided that all the effort was worth it. I can’t credit the limited cocktail menu, which hovers somewhere between mixological science experiments and sorority-girl sugar babies. But the wine list is well pitched with smart selections that truly offer a choice. In by-the-glass offerings, one chardonnay is oaked; the other is unoaked. One pinot noir is from California; the other is a Burgundy. That makes sense, and yet it’s surprising how many restaurants drop this ball.

But all the neighborhoodies around me were drinking beer. Two local brews (Port City and DC Brau) were on tap, and bottle/can offerings represented the best food-oriented brews out there, from Schlafly Kölsch to Bell’s Best Brown. The most-intoxicating pairing might be Anderson Valley Amber Ale and the Alsatian-inspired flammekueche, a flatbread topped with crème fraiche, sautéed onions and bacon. To call it the city’s best tarte-flambée is to suggest that there’s any competition.
In moving to the third course, I might suggest skipping the desserts entirely—despite the chef’s promise of doing wild things with strawberries this spring. With all those artisanal ales on tap, why isn’t a cheese course in the offing? Here’s to high hopes for that addition.

In a flash and without a gimmick, Mintwood Place has secured its place in a nabe that needs it. An anachronistic atmosphere permeates the mood, as if the restaurant popped out of a Midnight in Paris hallucination. Instantly, this new space feels old and familiar and embracing. In a word, comfortable. And that’s a compliment.

Mintwood Place
***½

1813 Columbia Road NW
202.234.6732
mintwoodplace.com

NO RESERVATIONS
Reservations are accepted only before 6:30pm and after 10pm, meaning that tables are reserved for those with a spontaneous streak.

DESIGN MIND
The salvaged materials are sourced from as far away as post-Katrina New Orleans to give Mintwood Place a modern-heritage aesthetic. The decorative copper work on the façade was there all along, waiting to be rediscovered.

PROVENANCE
“Farm-to-table is not something we promote; it’s just something we do,” says chef Maupillier.