by david hagedorn | June 27, 2012 | Food & Drink
Herbs and greens straight from the soil.
Strawberry ice cream, prepared by pastry chef Peter Brett.
A perfect pairing: Sebastien Archambault and John Melfi.
Crispy-skin salmon with a confit of tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and thyme.
The main dining room at Blue Duck Tavern.
When Blue Duck Tavern opened inside the Park Hyatt in 2006, it pulled off a combination never before seen in competition: a terrific location; designer Tony Chi’s high-style, minimalist modernism-meets-Americana décor; and then-chef Brian McBride’s locally sourced American cooking. The restaurant stuck the landing, appealing immediately to the nexus of Georgetown sophisticates, World Bank officials, and Embassy Row diplomats within propinquity of the property’s West End setting.
Moreover, it struck a chord with food scenesters who appreciated that Blue Duck sources products from sustainable farms and proudly but discreetly lists them on its menus. DC’s K Street and Capitol Hill power elite and visiting Hollywood celebrities were on board as well—Chi’s labyrinthine layout is a collection of rooms, nooks, and crannies that lend themselves perfectly to a favorite power player pastime: doing private business on public display over a splendid meal.
A-listers abound at Blue Duck Tavern. Recent sightings include actresses Reese Witherspoon and Kate Hudson, and food guru Alice Waters. Madeleine Albright has been seen here, as have Bono, Chelsea and Hillary Clinton, Wolf Blitzer, Clint Eastwood, Richard Gere, and countless senators and members of Congress. The Obamas, availing themselves of the entrance on M Street, celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary there in October 2009 and sat at the secluded chef’s table; with dinner she drank wine, he had vodka martinis.
Whether you walk through the 16-foot black-walnut entrance doors that front 24th Street or wend your way to the dining room from the lobby, it’s practically impossible not to pass by the Tea Cellar (featuring 50-plus rare and limited-production teas from around the world), the cocktail bar, and the lounge booths, encased in glass on all sides and sporting WiFi. Or to pass through the open-air kitchen’s oh-so-tempting adjacent dessert pantry, where neat rows of freshly baked apple pies will likely be on display.
The focal points of the dining room are the cobalt-blue lacquer and stainless steel Molteni range and the vast wood-burning oven that take front and center in the tavern’s open kitchen. There chef de cuisine John Melfi and executive chef Sebastien Archambault oversee the output that makes Blue Duck Tavern an award-winning culinary destination.
In December, Archambault replaced McBride, who ended a 25-year stint at the Park Hyatt to team up with fellow chef and longtime friend Robert Wiedmaier. The enigmatic Archambault, 38, was born in Texas but raised and trained in France. In 2008 he wound up in Los Angeles as executive chef of RH Restaurant, in the Andaz West Hotel. He and McBride shared cooking philosophies and were friends, so taking over for him at Blue Duck Tavern made for a smooth transition.
I arranged a lunch there in late April with acclaimed cookbook author and television personality Joan Nathan. We started with chilled lobster salad with frisée, avocado, and grapefruit, and a jumbo lump crab cake with coral aioli, then headed into entrées of veal schnitzel with mustard spätzle and tilefish with fingerling potatoes, beurre blanc, and chervil.
After the meal, Archambault discussed items he was working on for the summer menu: chilled green pea soup with mint, garnished with edible flowers, peas, and croutons; crispy-skin salmon with a confit of cherry tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and thyme, and a sun-dried tomato emulsion.
“I love tomatoes, especially heirlooms,” he says. “You can do so many things with them: raw, roasted, confited, grilled. You can pair them with intense red meat or a delicate fish, depending on how you prepare them.”
Some dishes will carry over from the spring menu, like the restaurant’s signature (and entirely addictive) French fries, prepared triple-fried and finished in duck fat; crab cakes; suckling pig that gets braised, pressed into a terrine, sliced, sautéed, and topped with crispy chicharróns; roasted asparagus with country ham, black garlic, and grated hen eggs.
Archambault loves those eggs, which come from Path Valley Farms, a collective of Amish farmers in Pennsylvania that intrigued him so much that he was planning a visit with his family and staff. “They are very passionate and intimate—small farms, not huge ones,” he effuses.
Joan and I ended our lunch with pastry chef Peter Brett’s handiwork: the aforementioned apple pie, a gorgeous lime-zested strawberry shortcake tower resting atop a pool of crème anglaise, and scoops of expertly blended vanilla and strawberry ice creams. Any doubts that the frozen accompaniments were de trop dissipated with their consumption. The desserts, in all their gilded glory, received perfect scores from the judges that day.
After all, it comes down to the dismount, doesn’t it?
photography by greg powers
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