Thursday, May 23, 2013

Washington Social Diary

The front door looks like its been there for decades, even though only for a month or so.
by Carol Joynt

The couple who may be Washington's biggest foodies also happen to be the President of the United States and the First Lady. If it’s hot, happening and culinarily impressive, Barack and Michelle Obama book a table and have a date night. Regardless of what you may think of the First Couple, this is, to quote food goddess Martha Stewart, a good thing. It’s especially exciting for Washington, where the last first couple to be restaurant habitués were President George and Barbara Bush — in the 1980s. Washington's restaurant scene is popping, and presidential patronage is an extra pop.

Given their appreciation for what’s happening in the DC food scene don’t be surprised if Le Diplomate isn’t soon on the Obamas agenda. Why? It is without equivocation the happening spot, where to be seen right now. If you can’t score a table at Le Diplomate you may as well pretend you are allergic to French food. 
Le Diplomate at the corner of 14th and Q Streets in Washington.
A visit to the new bistro is the talk of the town — as in how to get a reservation, who can get one, and who do I have to know to get one? For a number of weeks, as it was being built, and when it first opened, and in the days after, I listened to friends, colleagues and the foodie corps go on about getting into or trying to get into this restaurant, and then the generally  positive experience once there.

I was intrigued. I love a hot restaurant. Who doesn’t? It says so much about a city. So, you know, I went, with healthy skepticism (can anything be that fabulous?), and was rewarded. 
Le Diplomate's classic bistro menu. The deservedly acclaimed bread basket.
The bread station.
New Yorkers will appreciate my skepticism. I am a devoted fan of Balthazar since it opened in 1997. I’m so hopelessly besotted that I take the Acela up to NYC solely to have a midday meal at the Soho staple and then return on the late afternoon train, wondering, “why can’t we do that in Washington?” Attempts have been made but missed the mark.

Along comes Stephen Starr who, fortunately, had the same goal. He has created and owns a collection of restaurants, STARR Restaurants, with most of them in Philadelphia but also Morimoto and Buddakan in New York, and others in Atlantic City and Fort Lauderdale and Bal Harbour. He says he always wanted to open a restaurant in Washington. When he found the location on fashionable 14th Street, he says he knew it would be the ideal spot for the Parisian bistro he wanted to create. And so, voila!
Could be Paris, but it's 14th Street in Washington. The service is generally attentive and informed.
I’ve only been twice to Le Diplomate but both visits were a pleasure. The first, with my son, Spencer, was dinner. He had oysters. I had escargot. We both had very nice steak au poivre, plus crispy pomme frites. The bread is as swoon-worthy as I’d been told. It’s a good basket with good butter. My eyes locked on to the foie gras parfait as it was delivered to other tables and so, when I returned for a Sunday lunch, it was the first thing I ordered, followed by a salad of butter lettuces and sliced breakfast radishes.

My friend Jim Spellman had an egg white omelet, made to his liking with mushrooms. They have a decent $9 by the glass Loire Valley sparkling wine, and it’s a generous pour. The cocktails are compelling, particularly the bourbon-based Pompidou Plombier. There’s also a Tête-à-Tête made with, get this, Grey Goose, Hendrick’s Gin and Lillet, plus saffron and fleur de sel. Few restaurants serve Champagne cold enough for my taste — too often the bottles are kept in the white wine fridge rather than on ice — but when I requested “colder” our server smilingly obliged.
A laugh at Sunday brunch. Reading material for the solo patron.
A view toward the greenhouse rooms.
Since my visit to Le Diplomate was not as a critic but with Balthazar as the measure, given all, they matched up well. Designer Shawn (Chateau Marmont) Hausman has the French bistro look and feel nailed; chef Adam Schop’s kitchen produces tasty food.  

If there’s any learning curve it is one that happens at so many new DC restaurants: getting the staff up to speed. Unlike New York and L.A., food scenes where the service is notable, in Washington our servers aren’t typically pulled from the acting ranks, (Bradley Cooper excepted) and performance ready, but instead have their eyes on careers in law, lobbying, Congress, the White House or academia. In this town public service is an entertainment career. There are exceptions, of course, but you gotta give ‘em a break. On that basis, the service at Le Diplomate is very promising.
The oyster selection.
The salad verte with butter lettuce, sliced breakfast radishes and red wine vinaigrette.
Bistro french fries, as they should be.
The health-minded egg white omelette.
The special lemon dessert served at brunch. By all means eat the rind, too. Another brunch-only dessert of chocolate and mocha and hazelnuts.
If you can, go right now. There’s no way of knowing if the Obamas will become patrons, but on the night I had dinner, White House social secretary Jeremy Bernard was at a nearby table, with Hillary Rosen. Scouting, perhaps? If and when the first couple show up it will light the after-burners on the restaurant’s fame, making reservations more challenging — for a time. We expect, though, that it’s here for the long haul, a welcomed addition to a part of town already known as a boulevard of excellent eats. 

For the record, here are some of the restaurants that make up the impressive list of where the Obamas have had a Washington date night or dinner with friends: BLT Steak, Mintwood Place, Birch & Barley, Jose Andres’ Minibar, Fiola, Cafe Milano, Komi, Smith Commons, Bourbon Steak, Rosa Mexicano, Lincoln, Kenny’s BBQ Smokehouse, Eatonville, Boundary Road, Equinox, Restaurant Eve, Del Ray Pizzeria, Oyamel, Blue Duck Tavern, 1789, Ted’s Bulletin. Book a table at any one of these places and you'll be pleased. The list does not include their many forays out for burgers and ice cream, but the Obamas, and their daughters, are keen for both.
Le Diplomate has become a popular neighborhood gathering place. The scene in the bar on a Sunday afternoon.
And, I apologize for not having a photo of the foie gras parfait. When mine arrived I devoured half of it before I realized I’d forgot to snap the pic. It is that good. 

Le Diplomate
1601 14th Street NW
The late afternoon view in Le Diplomate.

When we walked into the Renwick Gallery for the book party for Richard Haass, my date made an astute observation: "So this is what it looks like when billionaires host a book party?" I'm not sure if everyone on the  invitation ranks as a billionaire, but the principal host, David Rubenstein certainly does, and the others have wealth and influence of one sort or another: Katherine and David Bradley of Atlantic Media, historian Michael Beschloss and Afsaneh Beschloss, Norma and Russ Ramsey, Kristin Mannion and H.P. Goldfield. Haass, who is head of the Council on Foreign Relations, is also husband of ABC News executive Susan Mercandetti
Portrait of wealth and influence: David Bradley, Michael Beschloss, Afsaneh Beschloss, Kristin Mannion, Richard Haass, David Rubenstein, and H.P. Goldfield.
The champagne was from Veuve Cliquot, there were two beautiful buffets of rare roast beef, lobster rolls, smoked salmon, pasta, salads and vegetable tart, plus assorted pastries. Really, all that was needed was one photo, of the hosts and the guest of honor, but here's who else was there: Ambassadors Peter Westmacott of Great Britiain, Michael Collins of Ireland, Kim Beazley of Australia, and Michael Oren of Israel; senatorKay Hagen; just-nominated US trade representative Mike Froman; acting energy secretary Dan PonemanLiz Sherwood Randall and Puneet Talwar of the National Security Council staff; USAID deputy director Donald Steinberg; former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend; and former congresswoman Jane Harman of the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Also: Linda Webster, Wolf BlitzerMaureen OrthEvan Thomas, Terrence SmithSusie TreesDavid SangerMartin IndykTim BartlettPaula Dobriansky, Margaret WarnerJim HoaglandStrobe TalbottDan Glickman, Carol and Ken AdelmanRichard BurtGerald and Eden RafshoonAmanda Downes, Christianne RicchiBob BarnettShelby CoffeyTammy HaddadJim Kimsey, Bill AllmanChristopher UllmanGloria BorgerSusan Blumenthal.
The Isham home, site of a book party for Walter Cronkite IV's "Walt."
A week or so later, another notable party and another notable photo. Walter Cronkite IV is the grandson of, well, who else? He's two years out of Hamilton college and is an associate producer at the CBS News Washington bureau. His boss is Christopher Isham, who is married to Jennifer Maguire. They are a lovely couple with an attractive and cozy home in Cleveland Park. They hosted a book party for "Walt" to celebrate his book, "Cronkite's War: His World War II Letters Home."
Walter "Walt" Cronkite IV, with his host and boss, CBS News Washington Bureau Chief Chris Isham. Cronkite greets a guest.
Walt wrote it with his history professor, Maurice Isserman, after visiting the University of Texas, where the papers of grandpa Walter Cronkite are kept. When we asked if he was doing a big book tour, Walt said, “Not too much. Actually, I have to work.”

Well chosen words in the home of the boss.
Grandson and grandfather.
Photographs by Carol Joynt.
Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt