I have stayed away from Georgetown since I’ve moved to DC for 2 main reasons. The first is the relatively limited access to the neighborhood for those who don’t drive (and, since it’s impossible to park, I guess for those who do too). The second is the reputation it holds of being stodgy and anachronistic in its social- and, as an extension, it’s culinary scene. Fur-coats, Birkin bags, pearls. Old money, old people, outdated principles. A place where a snag in one’s pantyhose raises as many eyebrows as falling down a flight of stairs would in Admo. Recently I’ve had a wave of visitors staying with me. I had a great time showing them around and, inadvertently, learning the layout of the city myself. After visiting the sights and exhausting Logan Circle and Admo for its $14 craft cocktails, it was time to jump on the Circulator and swing over to George-‘hood. A walk down the promenade (“See, we don’t have a beach or coast, but there’s still the Potomac…”), a stroll down M, swinging shopping bags and admiring the colonial quaintness of the Dickensonian town.
It’s true, Georgetown is a little bit old-school and most of its restaurants fall into one of two traps: the seriously uncool French haute cuisine and the modern themed eatery trying desperately to be cool. When I was invited to dine at 1789 with my beloved mama last weekend, I expected it to tumble head first into the former trap. I expected starched white linens, snooty waiters who corrected my pronunciation, uncomfortable and démodé French fare of the nouvelle cuisine era – scallop tangerine gastrique and tartares mutilated to fit a tight mold. As it turns out, I only got the first two. The environment was a bit stuffy, though the candles added a softness which welcomed us home. The waiter was snooty, but his French accented sarcasm melted into charm after a glass of Bordeaux. There was a rather uptight looking family with two sons – no doubt squeaky-clean scholars of Georgetown – there, perhaps, to celebrate a promotion or a spotless report card. But their mannerisms added comic relief, the circus in the “bread and circus” of our night.
And the food was impeccable. My mother, for me, is the original gourmande who will speak her mind honestly about any dish placed in front of her – be it at a choripan stand in Buenos Aires or a South End enoteca. I was happy to have her as my date in 1789, to help me judge the food without being unfairly seduced by the glam around it. We unanimously agreed that it was outstanding. It started, appropriately, with a triage of breads and butter. And oil. A grainy, sweet cornbread paired nicely with apple cinnamon butter while a crusty, hearty, flour-dusted sourdough was brought to a new level by the not-too-sweet Meyer lemon butter. There was also a wheat variety which I willed myself not to try, as I did not want to fill up on carbs before what I knew would be a very filling meal. My amused bouche (zing!) was a delightful little espesso cup of Cauliflower Soup, a rich and creamy puree inundated with the delicate flavors of the florets. To offset the natural sweetness of the vegetable, there was a beautiful little quenelle of tart goat cheese and some mature olive oil which brought the flavors back into the realm of the savory. Best when taken as a single shot, I think, this was a light but very well thought out beginning to a wonderful meal.
Among the selection of carefully curated cheese boards, our very French waiter recommended the Feeling Bleu. From Central Point, Oregon came the Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue which is truly a unique little guy. The cow milk blue is cold-smoked over hazelnut shells which infuses the cheese with an added layer of Oregon terroir, resulting in a hint of roasted nuts among the sweet cream and earthy flavors. It is also cave aged for at least 6 months to allow the cheese to ripen. A bit like creme brulee within the tartness of the bacterial brine. It went beautifully with the coriander and raisin toast which was crunchy with a nice hint of spice. The other cheese was a Mindoro Blue from Swiss Valley, Wisconsin. This one was a bit firmer and not as interesting as its smokey side-kick but it should definitely hit the spot for lovers of the classic. Also on the plate was a bit of deliciously floral honey comb and some thin, chewy bits of lardon which added a fatty, very slightly salty and cured flavor to the board. Our first warm apéritif was the Duck Confit Strudel, which came highly recommended by many of my trusted sources. It sounded a little uncool and old-school but turned out to be one of the best duck dishes I’ve ever had. A flaky, buttery, crunchy strudel filling with delightful little strands of confit duck. The meat was moist and the steam coming off it when the pastry was sliced into was filled with the essence of the meat, almost heavy with mouthwatering duck aroma. It came in a pool of thick, velvety smooth foie gras cream, which I thought was a clever juxtaposition of two duck preparations. The cream had a rich fat duck flavor without too much of a metallic liver twang to it and its buttery texture was accented here and there with some clean white mascarpone cheese. The comfortable smokey and savory flavors of each forkful of foie cream coated strudel was contrasted wonderfully by the dollop of tart cranberry and apple compote on top. The chunky, fruity jam added a brilliant highlight to the dish both in color and in flavor. Well rounded, well thought out and perfect in execution. Next up was the Foie Gras Torchon Brûlée, 1791’s signature foie preparation. Ever since I had Le Diplomate’s butchered version of this classic in July I’ve made it a point to avoid it. But something about my mother makes it impossible not to order it and we silently agreed that it was a definite must only seconds after being handed the menu. And yeah, it is a must. A dense little puck of heavenly soft, jiggly duck liver butane-torched like creme brûlée to achieve a smokey, caramelized exterior to offset the smoothness and natural dulzor hiding within. The torchon was sitting on a thin slice of buttery brioche toast with a hint of sweetness which didn’t overpower (thankfully!) and was drizzled with an aged maple syrup whose roasty-toasty, deep sweetness was allowed (instead) to shine, accenting the smoke on the exterior of the foie. For a touch of contrast there was also a small spoonful of grape jam topping the foie but it wasn’t smeared on, which I really appreciated, as it made me the boss in allowing me to add however much of it I wanted. As I wanted to stick with the flavors of the foie and really experience them with the aged maple, I only added a bit. The interactive element of this dish was nice too; we were allowed to mash the torchon and spread the smooth stuff with a knife, like butter, onto the toast ourselves. Thanks, kitchen, for making this tactile pleasure part of the experience! Thinking back now on the reaction this dish brought out in my mom and the reaction that followed when we traded plates and I got to try it myself is pretty overwhelming and I have the urge to bear-hug the person whose hands made this thing or maybe the person who first scribbled the idea into a notebook to execute later on. Much debate over whether this or the duck strudel was better. A futile debate indeed. We do not look too much alike, but I know we’re biologically related because of how quickly we both skipped over the “Flour and Egg” pasta section of the menu. We went instead straight to the Humanely Farmed Animals section, as we were both craving tannic red wine, which became the determiner of our dish selection. Our first choice was the Tenderloin off their Butcher Cut selection, a 7 oz. beauty cooked to a perfect rare from the Shenandoah Valley Beef Cooperative. Man, oh man. Juicy but lean, beautifully marbled, a vibrant purple with a thin smokey, crackling char coating the exterior. A knife only light serrated slid through the pillow of meat so easily, leaving behind slick, smooth surfaces which embraced my tongue happily. Flavored with salt and a little black pepper, allowing the terroir of the Valley to shine through in each juicy bite. A flawless cut of happy grass-fed cow. Also on the plate was a bit of bordelaise, a demi-glace of Bordeaux, bone marrow, butter and shallots. A little of the sauce went a long way with the meat, the wildly oaky tannins adding a richness and interacting with both the smokey sear and the aged, complex interior of the steak. There was also a nice little mound of sauteed spinach which was expertly not overwhelmed with garlic that added a moist, vegetal thing to a plate dominated by meat. Next to it, a wild mushroom bread pudding, delicious enough to be an appetizer on its own – bits of bread and earthy, funky fungus held together by a baked cream which was still somehow pretty light. Not realizing that the steak would be coming with accoutrements already, we ordered the Spaghetti Squash Fritters off the Fall Vegetables selection to have as a side to our meat. I highly recommend this dish especially to those vegetarians who cannot indulge in the Shenandoah Valley goodness, as it was satisfying enough to stand on its own. Thin shreds of roasted acorn squash formed into a fritter, coated in breadcrumbs and lightly fried for a crunch. The results is a crispy, nutty exterior followed by a mushy, vegetal sweet filling which is still kept interesting because of the spaghetti texture dancing around wildly on the tongue. Also on the plate are a few wedges of sweet potato roasted to a caramelized perfection, the flesh melting off the dry, blackened skin and ready to please. A delightfully autumnal squash cream in a pool under the veggies and an intense vincotto, reduced to the texture of aged balsamic and black with flavor drizzled over the top for a touch of richness. As far as my mom and I were concerned, the meal was all about our second entree, the Lamb Rack from Cumberland Valley, Maryland. It was lightly crusted with a nicely briny olive and breadcrumb coating, topped with a piquant chimichurri, bottomed with its own jus, and served with braised kale, tender cubes of roasted kohlrabi and a puck of crispy bone marrow grits. If any dish demonstrates the creativity and out-of-the-box thinking of Chef Anthony it’s this one. No mint jelly or Herbes de Provence anywhere near this rack. Instead, shout-out’s to the South with grits ‘n’ kale, a South American touch of chimichurri, and an embracement of the recent trend of using previously under-utilized Eastern European root veggies in place of the boring old potato. Cool things but not gimmicky. And the lamb remains the focus, cooked to a perfect medium rare in our case. Even the arrangement of the lambs on the plate seemed to rebel against the French classic. Two chops clashing against each other in an almost violent display rather than arranged side by side, neat and tidy. The meat was juicy and lean, with the funky mineral twang of lamb kept very much intact. The parsley and fresh garlic in the chimichurri added a freshness to the grungy meat and it induced a nostalgia for Argentina in me. It was the real deal, your abuelo porteño’s stuff in the ceramic ramekin at the weekend asado in the campo. The kale was nice and moist, reduced into dense little lumps of earthy green and the kohlrabi cubes were roasted to a perfect tenderness quite like steamed cabbage core, with a natural root sweetness to it. The fried little round of crispy bone marrow grits was absolutely awesome. The creamy, fatty richness of the marrow bound together the rather large grains of grits, which became tender but were not overcooked. The crispy breadcrumb coating added an extra decadence to the thing. It all came together beautifully into a dynamic masterpiece of a dish, a reflection not of Old World douchebaggery but, on the contrary, a visionary creation very much inspired by both New World Southern comfort cuisine and a New World South American culinary tradition. For dessert, the Cran-Pear Panna Cotta which came in a classic parfait form, but contained some cool not-so-classic elements. An angel-soft buttermilk panna cotta which melted its gelatinous creamy texture over the tongue. Flavor was added to the sweet cream by an only slightly acidic, mostly roasted and sweet cranberry-pear jam as well as a nutty cashew praline sprinkled over the top. There were a few shards of the praline in the body of the panna cotta which provided a delightful crunch to certain spoonfuls of the cream, nicely offsetting the texture of the latter. A fresh, squeaky clean flavored scoop-lette of ice cream over the top lifted up the richness of the praline studded pudding while the floral, powder sugar dusted honey tuile in cookie form added an additional contrast in texture.
I can honestly report that the meal was perfect from beginning to end, with each dish bringing out new reactions, all different but all favorable. It bothers me a bit to not have any criticism at all, no negative but maybe valuable feedback to give on how to improve the experience, especially as the restaurant is located in a neighborhood I was once (but am no longer) quite critical of. But, well, sometimes that’s just the way things are. A flawless dinner and great service at a truly beautiful restaurant.