All photos & video: Stephanie Breijo
All words: William
Move over Seth Hurwitz. You’re no longer the only DC bigshot used to hanging out with rockstars and billionaires. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of U2, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen was once a fond pastime for Stephen Starr. But now for Starr, a concert promoter turned restaurateur, it’s not about music, it’s about restaurants. Starr is the man behind twenty-nine eateries around the country and his 30th, Le Diplomate, located at located at 14th & Q in Logan Circle.
Bon Appetit magazine named Starr “Restaurateur of the Year” in October 2005, and in 2007 he picked up the same mantle, this time from Zagat. His restaurants typically aim for medium-to-high concept, eye-catching interior design, but all boast plenty of flavor beyond the flashy style. You might also recognize him from Top Chef, where he has been a guest judge multiple times, including an episode featuring Bryan Voltaggio.
Le Diplomate will echo one of his Philadelphia restaurants Parc, but the menu, currently being developed, will be French with an eclectic twist, notably when it comes to seafood. “Expect some bizarre mollusks,” we were was told. If our platter at Parc this past weekend was any indication, we can expect loads of crabs, oysters, clams, lobster.
Their website describes Le Diplomate’s menu further: “The extensive menu features a variety of classic dishes including Onion Soup Gratinee, Steak Frites, and Poulet Roti as well as contemporary bistro fare, with dishes such as Shaved Veal Tongue with Mache and Bavette de Boeuf à l’Echalote.”
But in order to really preview what D.C. is in for, we had to go check out some his properties ourselves.
During our trip to Philadelphia over the weekend Starr likened the 7 restaurants we toured to that of attending a theater production, where the players, props, backdrops, lighting and rapport are integral components of an overall dramatic effect. When this atmospheric drama is paired with edgy, delicious cuisine, dining out at an SRO restaurant becomes entertainment for all of the senses.
Take this as a preview for what to expect from Le Diplomate, or take it as a quick guide for where to eat in Philly. Either way it’s a good time.
This is Steven Starr’s first establishment. From the outside the restaurant looks like your typical old diner. Inside the restaurant is hip and trendy with colored lighting and, later in the evening we’re told, house music. You might expect to see an old fashioned menu at a diner, but it’s populated with eclectic but simple tapas menu. Although we only had some fruit, coffee and pastries here, it set the tone for feeling out the character of each property
There’s pizza, and then there’s fancy pizza with exotic ingredients. Pizzeria Stella is a little bit in between. The ingredients are a step up – pistachio and black truffle — but still firmly in the Italian pie tradition The mixtures and combinations of toppings and sauces are striking, but the bakers at Stella churn them out with no hassle. It takes mere minutes for a thin crust pizza to come out of the woodfire adobe oven and have it settle and cool in front of you.
The Pistachio pie’s creamy, nutty fontina pairs excellently with crisp red onions and crunchy pistachios. The Tartufo pizza consisted of black truffle, fontina cheese, egg and Parmesan cheese. The server cracked the yolk and spread it over the pizza when he brought it out. Delicious and unexpected, without ever overstepping the boundaries of Italian authenticity.
The ambiance, like each Steven Starr venue I was coming to learn, could not be beat. A dark crimson decor with a glowing gold Buddha as the room’s centerpiece and great service from the staff left everyone quietly beaming. As for the food, I thought it was very good, but not though I would not call it mind-blowing.
The edamame ravioli came with only a handful of pieces, but I could have eaten a ton of them if I had the room to do so. The edamame was a creamy and filling. We also had Cantonese spring rolls for an appetizer. They were stuffed with chicken and shrimp and came with spicy honey mustard sauce with crystallized ginger flecked into the mix.
Once again the aesthetics of Starr’s next property, Talulah’s Garden, were undeniable. The garden atmosphere and interior surroundings are a nice transition from Washington Square’s hint at a comfy natural setting. Apparently it takes about a year to make reservations to this place, so we were eager to find out why. The presentation and explanation of their cheesboards and wine we were given they arrived lasted a good 5-10 minutes, on top of the validation of the farm-to-table steps the kitchen takes to placate locavores and confirm freshness, culminated a quiet confidence in vision of Talulah’s Garden. We didn’t have a while meal while we were there, but the vibe was completely West Coast, like a trip out to Napa Valley. Another point to atmosphere.
Fun fact: Mike Isabella used to work in the cocinas of El Vez. Stepping into the Mexican eatery you’re greeted by an island bar with a kitschsy rotating lowrider bike behind the bartenders. The atmosphere is definitely part of the experi–ah, you get the point. The walls are dazzled with colorful mosaics, though the venue is lowlit. A popular photo booth sits in the back of the first floor, and otherwise the dusky reds and ochres of the building make you at once relaxed but also ready for a fiesta. It could have been the alcohol propelling me toward that latter state. Their blood orange margarita is one of the better frozen cocktails I’ve had in sometime, and they were definitely not stingy with alcohol.
Their list of house made guacamole is impressive, with mango/papaya and truffle two examples of some of the ingredients they spike their bowl with. El Vez goes through 3,000 avocados a week the general manager told us. I can see why. The mahi tacos were fantastic, and wonderfully cooked. They are combined with great aioli/mayos and matched well with onions and avocado, making for a rich, creamy entree, though were I not so full I might’ve regarded the plate as just tapas since it only came with two.
Second to last was Dandelion Pub on 18th Street. By not you’re either with me or not on the way the theme of each restaurant begins to pop out immediately. This time we were stepping into a simulated British gastropub, but it might be some of the best ‘pub food’ you’ll encounter on this side of the pond.
Noting first the space – a large house completely renovated into a restaurant and featuring rooms ranging from a large banquet hall to a sporty bar (complete with televisions showing those shitheads Manchester United) to many small nooks and crannies each featuring distinctive seating from rustic chairs to benches and barstools.
So we went with fish and chips to eat of course, the fish which was perfectly cooked. The fish was moist and the breading was light and flaky. The chips were triple fried in beef fat and the accompanying tartar was delicious, though one of my tablemates gave me the ingenious idea of swabbing up our goose liver with the chips.
Stepping into Parc evokes stumbling upon a bistro in Paris. The atmosphere here is lively and the decor takes this restaurant to another level from the get-go. While you’re dining you can take in your surroundings and people watch or you can simply observe all the little design details that make this so much like you’re actually sitting in a Parisian hot spot.
All that is not to say of course, that the food is a secondary reason to frequent this place. Their seafood platter comes in a heaping three tier tower of clams, shrimp, crab claws, snails, crab salad, mussel salad, lobster, oysters, and various sauces.
I went with the roasted chicken with mashed potatoes after doing a quick google search of the menu and seeing that the Food Network featured the plate at one point. It was cooked well, and had I a bigger appetite by the end of the night (I felt like this was my third heaping Thanksgiving meal of the day) I would have demolished my plate.
While we stepped back into the kitchen, head baker Nicholas Brannan told us about how Parc bakes baguettes and a little bit about the history of it and what makes a perfect baguette:
Baguette Parisien Recipe
by Nicholas Brannon
This recipe yields one kilo of baguette dough, but the recipe is also pretty versatile. We use the same dough for Pain Ordinaire Sandwich bread and Pistole Rolls, but it could serve you well as a base for pizza or focaccia. At Parc we only use metric weight measure for all ingredients to ensure consistency. Recipe makes about 3 baguettes.
For Pre-ferment (Poolish):
150g AP Flour
150g Water (About 74°F)
Pinch of dry yeast
For Final Dough:
443g All-purpose Flour
241g Water (About 74°F)
2g Dry Instant Yeast
All of the Pre-ferment
- Combine the water, yeast and flour in a small mixing bowl and stir until very well combined. Allow to sit and ripen for at least 3 or 4 hours, at most 10 to 12 hours. The resultant mixture will show signs of highly active fermentation, be full of bubbles and smell yeasty and a little winey.
For the Final Dough:
- Combine the ripened pre-ferment together with the water and yeast in a large mixing bowl and mix it all together using a wooden spoon. When the yeast is dissolved, add the flour, then the salt on top of the flour, and bring together into a rough dough with your spoon. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for no less than 10 minutes, using only light dustings of flour to keep the dough from sticking to your surface. You can also use a small stand mixer and mix on medium speed until the dough becomes smooth and pulls away from the bowl.
- Then the dough goes into a lightly oiled mixing bowl, is covered by a kitchen towel, and is left to rise for 45 minutes at which point the dough gets a “fold”. The dough is turned out on a lightly floured surface and pressed out using your finger tips and given a wallet fold. This step helps develop the gluten of the final dough and further distributes the yeast throughout the dough. Repeat this process again after another 45 minutes.
- After the second fold, allow the dough to rise again for another 45 minutes. At that point the dough should be nice and bubbly and have a nicely fermented aroma. You can now divide the dough into 335g pieces. Shape the pieces into loose football shapes. Allow them to rest for ten minutes on the floured surface covered with a towel.
- Preheat your oven, optimally with a large baking stone, to 475°F.
- Now turn each piece up-side-down and dimple the dough out with your fingertips and roll the dough up into a tight, thin cylinder, about seven or eight inches long and let rest again, covered for ten minutes. Evenly roll the pre-shaped dough into its final shape, about 18 inches long if possible, and place on parchment on a sheet pan with about two inches of space between them and leave them rise, covered, for a half hour.
- Before baking, give the loaves six or seven overlapping, long slashes on the top of each loaf with a knife and spray with water. Place the sheet pan with the loaves on the baking stone, if you have one, and spray a fine mist of water into the oven to create steam. The steam will help the baguettes bake properly. Five or six sprays should do.
- The baguettes should be done in 15 to 20 minutes or when they have a deep golden brown color.
So what did we learn from all this? There are really only two takeaways. First, Stephen Starr’s properties are visually alluring. Each one has a distinct character in its design – from aesthetic fixtures to menu style to your stemware, plates, knives and forks. More importantly, the food was good-to-great at each venue. With any hope this little excursion to Philly previewed what’d sure to be a distinct presence in the DC dining scene at Le Diplomate, the 260 seater, 7,500 square foot property set to open in about a month’s time. Stay tuned for more information on BYT in the following weeks for its opening and tasting menu.
And now for some extra foodporn…
SHOTS FROM CONTINENTAL:
SHOTS FROM STELLA:
SHOTS FROM BUDDAKAN:
SHOTS FROM TALULA’S GARDEN:
SHOTS FROM EL VEZ:
SHOTS FROM DANDELION:
AND LAST BUT CERTAINLY NOT LEAST, SHOTS FROM PARC: