Boudin basque and boudin blanc, with hash browns, red onion and creme fraiche
When word got out that Daniel Boulud was opening a restaurant in the CityCenterDC downtown, expectations ran high. After all, Boulud is one of the most venerated chefs in the United States, if not the world. His collection of restaurants in New York includes eight concepts, including the refined Daniel, Boulud’s culinary Valhalla in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. There, I recently had one of the finest meals of my life.
Five years ago, Boulud ventured into the Lower East Side’s Bowery to open DBGB, a brasserie. It’s this concept he opened here in mid-September. Rumor has it that he intends to take the concept national, and Washington is an experiment.
As executive chef, Boulud installed Ed Scarpone, promoting him after six years with the company, most recently as executive sous chef of db Bistro Moderne in New York. Boulud promises to make cameo appearances from time to time.
DBGB has the lively vibe you’d expect from a brasserie. Two rooms, which seat 40, front the H Street entrance, including a bar with mirrored walls, a la française, onto which, like the restaurant’s windows, aphorisms of notables are scripted. The 75-seat main dining room is on a mezzanine where hinged, ceiling-high glass-window panels open to CityCenterDC’s courtyard in good weather.
The style is modern and sleek. The color palette is hot chocolate, paprika and beige. Appointments include wood-grain veneer tables, cafe chairs and upholstered banquettes. Settle in with a refreshing Lumière cocktail (vodka, rosemary and lemon) or a glass of Patrick Bottex sparkling rosé; then ignore your mother’s advice to not fill up on bread. DBGB offers breadmeister Mark Furstenberg’s (Bread Furst) heavenly creations, including country bread and lavash. Then, nibble on curled, crisp baguette crackers cradling dill-spiked smoked salmon, sprinkled with everything seasoning (black-and-white sesame seeds, poppy seeds, caraway, toasted garlic and onion), and share a tart flambé—its thin, cracker-like crust topped with bacon-and-onion bits and oozing with fromage blanc.
Other standout appetizers include a picturesque crudo of dice-size cubes of pristine tuna placed atop zingy harissa-sesame sauce, and decorated with crispy rice and thin slices of colorful cucumber and radish. Medallions of Japanese eggplant cooked in honey and deglazed with sherry vinegar get lined up and topped with tomato concassé, yogurt, sumac and fresh mint. They’re separated with shards of socca, a chickpea-based flatbread. This dish is a visual and sumptuous tour de force and will quickly take its place among Washington’s stellar dishes.
The steak tartare at DBGB is bright, pink and freshly chopped by hand. The mustard, Worcestershire, caper and chopped cornichon seasonings are well balanced; this is a great rendering of a classic that’s seemingly simple to make but much abused in other restaurants. For those of us who still can’t get enough pork belly, DBGB’s batons of the fatty treat served with dressed frisee satisfy the urge.
Before your eyes get to the main courses and burgers on DBGB’s large menu, zero in on the section of housemade sausages. You can’t take a wrong step with any of these: plump, delicate boudin blanc hinting of truffle; hearty boudin noir spiked with Espelette pepper; a spiral of lamb merguez atop lemony braised spinach; and lemongrass-laced Thai bangers with red-curry drizzle and peanuts.
For entrees, I offer unusual advice: Go for the chicken. Crunch-coated fried chicken is juicy and flavor-rich even before a dunk in the miniature pot of irresistible DBQ sauce. Its ingredients are secret, but the taste—with hints of mustard, vinegar and spice—is a bit sweet, like baked beans without the beans.
The star of the show, though, is coq au vin, chicken pieces marinated and braised in red wine, enrobed in satisfyingly dark sauce and bejeweled with smoky lardons, button mushrooms and pearl onions. The finesse of refined French technique reveals itself in details at DBGB: a decorative basil leaf peeking from under a thin coating of kataifi on a chunk of salmon in pistou; fluke served as a center-cut darne from a whole fish—rather than fillets—before receiving a Grenobloise update of cauliflower and grapes.
There are some misses at DBGB too. Fabulous deviled eggs abound in DC, so it takes more than beet juice and a dab of caviar to shine. The housemade charcuterie selection (rich rillettes, pate de campagne, pate grand-mere, saucisson sec, lush jambon de Paris) is perfectly fine, but other places in town (The Partisan, Urban Butcher, Le Diplomate and Osteria Morini, to name a few) aim to knock our socks off, and they do. The Crabbie, Boulud’s homage to DC, takes the Mid-Atlantic’s most vaunted ingredient, Maryland blue crab, and forces it to compete, impossibly, with a chargrilled beef patty by placing it on top.
Service at DBGB is polished, amid some growing pains. There are niceties you’d expect from a restaurant bearing Boulud’s name. For example, if you leave the table as your entree is served, someone appears magically with a plate dome to keep it warm. When a showstopping signature baked Alaska arrives, a server deftly baptizes it with Chartreuse and ignites it with a blowtorch.
Dessertwise, chunky fig tart with a buttery short crust is a winner, as is the pistachio sundae with cubes of pistachio shortbread, roasted apricots and candied pine nuts. The pièces de résistance, though, are the ethereal, airy, eggy Grand Marnier souffle and basket of warm madeleines—old-school touches in the center of a new city.
DBGB Kitchen and Bar
1931 H St. NW, 202.695.7660
Appetizers, $11-$21; entrees, $26-$48; desserts, $7-$10
Sun., 5-10PM; Mon.-Thu., 5-11PM; Fri.-Sat., 5PM-midnight
The Whole Hog Dinner ($495) for up to eight people is a mainstay of DBGB’s New York outpost, so why mess with a good thing? A 14-pound suckling pig is stuffed with chard, pork, chestnuts and mushrooms. It’s roasted and served with starters and sides, including vegetable tart, fingerling potatoes, and DBGB’s signature dessert, baked Alaska. Order 48 hours in advance.
Art of Toques
Before DBGB opened, Boulud sent white dinner plates and paint to famous chefs (Bryan Voltaggio, Cathal Armstrong and Bertrand Chemel, among others) and asked each to decorate away. The renderings line the walls of the restaurant and are worth perusing. It’s revealing who went the Salvador Dali route. Most intriguing: Patrick O’Connell’s golden foot, with dripping stigmata.