ESCARGOT ESCAPE Escargots in a blanket are the most interesting openers on the menu—they are crispy phyllo cylinders perfect for dipping in garlic butter.
Chef Cedric Maupillier wasn’t quite satisfied with the immense success he brought to Mintwood Place, Saied Azali’s Adams Morgan eatery that consistently ranks among Washington’s most beloved neighborhood restaurants. He grew restless and wanted something of his own, so he partnered with Azali and started looking for space. In November, they opened Convivial in red-hot Shaw at Eighth and O streets in the City Market at O development.
The Franco-American bistro is Maupillier’s brainchild, down to the name, meant to connote warm hospitality and promote the place as a gathering spot. Designed by Peter Hapstak of HapstakDemetriou+ (Fiola Mare, Bread Furst, Rose’s Luxury), Convivial is two 45-seat dining rooms separated by a square 30-seat bar. The division cleverly creates intimacy in all three areas. The paneled walls are birch-colored; the furniture, dark brown. Windows fill the rooms with light and streetlight; large chandeliers resemble tangles of white Christmas-tree lights. Details indicate Maupillier cares about the guests’ comfort: upholstery on the plank banquettes, soundproofing, nice piqué cotton napkins, ultrachilled cocktail glasses (courtesy of liquid nitrogen) and two hours of free parking in the adjacent parking garage.
The greatest details are on a menu divided into Nibbles, Cold, Hot, Cheese and Dessert. It satisfies the small-plate set and those who like the appetizer, entree and dessert construct. The meal begins with a paper bag filled with warm fougasse, a Provencale herb bread slashed to resemble wheat.
Nibbles are like fabulous hors d’oeuvres that would be passed at a dream cocktail party. Order an assortment of them to go with the well-crafted cocktails, heavy on the classics, such as the Vieux Carré, Americano and pisco punch. The most cunning snack is escargots in a blanket: crispy phyllo cylinders of snails and spinach to be dipped in garlic butter. Half dollar-size tartiflette fritters of Reblochon cheese, mashed potatoes, bacon and onion are crispy and oozy versions of that rib-sticking Alpine casserole. Thin rectangular pumpernickel and seaweed crisps—filled with sand shrimp, dill and cream-cheese spread—are clever Scandinavian finger sandwiches.
All of the cold dishes intrigue. A perfect circle of chopped braised leeks and finely chopped shallots Dijonnaise—topped with tiny buttery croutons, grated egg and capers—is an irresistible interpretation of a classic. Cauliflower panna cotta (blancmange) topped with tabbouleh, toasted almonds and abundant dill, parsley and mint bursts with flavor. Thin slices of cured arctic char draped over creamy elderberry-colored tarama (fish roe) spread is a fresh take on a traditional smoked-salmon appetizer. I could make a meal out of the frisee and endive salad tossed with pecans and ranch dressing, topped with shreds of lush turkey confit and served with a thin slice of country bread toast.
Among the hot dishes are two vegetarian stunners. One is a nutty barley pilaf with a large roasted sunchoke crowned with toasted cashews, wispy sunchoke chips and goat-cheese curds. The other is an assemblage of toasted pistachio and Picholine olive cake, roasted acorn squash, sauteed mustard greens, grated coconut and vadouvan curry sauce.
Fish and meat offerings also shine. Sausage-shaped, poached scallop-and-chive mousse is Maupillier’s boudin blanc (a white pork-based sausage) riff. It rests on snow pea slivers and beurre blanc, and is topped with salmon roe pearls and sea-bean fragments. The dish is delicate, bold and delightful.
Coq au vin fried chicken is a breakout star. Pieces of juicy, bonchon-esque fried chicken are bathed in rich red wine sauce and keep company with mashed potatoes, lardons and roasted cippolini onions. I’m a fan, but my money is on the braised veal beast on black forbidden rice with roasted carrots, button mushrooms and shaved black truffle. Pot-au-feu of braised beef cheek, tongue and tendon is worth a whirl for the bone marrow-drenched tartine that accompanies it. Maupillier also makes a mean bacon cheeseburger with a passel of fries that may well be the best in town.
Desserts soar with creations like the milk-chocolate creme brulee, which lives up to its promise. The texture is smooth and light, which is hard to do when adding chocolate. Shards of black meringue pushed into its crunchy caramel surface are a pleasant extra. Maple ice cream scooped on warm and moist sticky toffee pudding cake drips, lava-like, into a pool of caramel sauce.
As you return to your car after dinner, you realize gleefully that Convivial has one last amenity to offer: You can pick up the milk you need for tomorrow’s breakfast at Giant—a few steps from where you parked. Maupillier really has thought of everything.
801 O St. NW
Tue.-Thu., 5:30-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-10:30pm
Small Plates: $13-$21
Cedric Maupillier agonized over every detail of Convivial, including the ice for its cocktails. The staff fills small Igloo coolers with water and puts them in the freezer. The ice freezes from the top down, pushing all the gas to the bottom. The result is a completely clear block except for a small layer of cloudiness on the bottom, which gets shaved off. The ice is left out to temper for 30 to 45 minutes so a Chinese cleaver tapped with a rubber mallet cuts straight through it. Result: a crystal-clear rectangle of ice that keeps your cocktail cold, not watery.
It’s genius of Maupillier to capitalize on the juice craze by making three of them available on his drinks menu: green (kale, grapes, green apple, celery, parsley, lemon, lime juice and tangerine), orange (carrot, lemon, ginger, lime, tangerine, mint leaves) and red (beets, apple, mint, grape, tarragon, lime, grapefruit). One suggested addition to seal the sip: gin!