Walking into Le Diplomate is like walking into a movie. The setting is Paris, the year is indistinguishable. All that you know is it’s a romance, be it with a significant other, a stranger or the cuisine you’re about to enjoy. Such is the experience of Stephen Starr’s new French bistro, his first venture into D.C. dining.
We first met Starr on a whirlwind food tour of Philadelphia, his homebase where he operates a startling 21 restaurants. Our final stop on the trip was of course Parc, Le Diplomate’s stunning older sibling. To those familiar with the former, the latter is fairly similar in both menu (roughly 70% in likeness) and atmosphere, though D.C. is of course its own space. To those unfamiliar, Le Diplomate is precisely where you’ll be all spring and summer long, whether you’re seated in their pristinely decorated bistro or their picturesque patios.
Just one glimpse into the new spot on 14th and Q St. NW and you already feel like you’re in another part of the world. French newspapers perch on the wall next to the bar; a variety of twee chairs–wicker, wood, upholstered, and more–are arranged around circular, square and oblong tables. Along windows are precious two-and-four seaters as well as red booths. One step in and we’re in love.
The menu–listing traditional fare like Steak Frites and Beef Bourguignon as well as a few modern takes on the classics–could change at any time if Starr feels things are not up to his standards, though we couldn’t imagine a single person who would believe any morsel at Le Diplomate could be deemed sub-par. For now, in its first week of soft open, the new spot offers dinner service only, with lunch ideally starting within the next two weeks and brunch even sooner.
Their 10:00am – 3:00pm brunch kicks off this Sunday offering a mouthwatering spread of lunch salads and sandwiches and a large egg selection with items like Croque Madame, Steak and Eggs with sauce béarnaise, Eggs Benedict, Quiche Lorraine and more. If you’re in the mood for something sweet, their French Toast with brandied apples and hazelnut butter should do the trick. If you’re in the mood for something savory, their Smoked Salmon Tartine with rowe and crème fraîche looks especially appetizing; what we’re trying to say, if you hadn’t gleaned, is that you can’t go wrong.
We began our meal with the Pamplemousse Pressè and Josèphine. The pamplemousse was a clean and refreshing combination of sparkling wine, Combier Pamplemousse and lemon that never overdid the grapefruit. The Josèphine–Bugey, Byrhh, Crème de Pêche, Stolichnaya and strawberries–was naturally sweet, almost like a fresh spritzer. (Both, we suggest, you order and enjoy on their 60-seat patio.)
The Mushroom Tart with pioppini mushrooms and truffle pecorino was slightly earthy and delectably slick from cheese. Layers of buttery, savory pie crust that melts in your mouth is only the beginning of this starter, though it could easily pass for a light meal in itself. There’s a richness from the cheese and a subdued bite fromt garlic and pairs perfectly with the ground mushroom base; quite simply, it’s exactly what one would expect from years of Stephen Starr’s perfectionism, in all the right ways.
The Moules Frites–marinière style mussels and pommes frites with sauce mayonnaise–were plump and perfectly cooked. The broth is citrusy, flirting with tart undertones, and quite honestly, it’s one of the most artfully prepared broths I’ve ever tried. It picks up an herbal flavor from fresh thyme sprigs and whole bay leaves, with white wine, shallots and lemon adding a robustness that we couldn’t stop sipping.
We of course had to try their Burger Americain, though
part of me all of me wishes they had named it a Royale with Cheese. Despite the nomenclature, it’s a hearty, beefy classic that pairs well with either frites or a mesclun salad and it should be noted that not a drop of ketchup was used; it’s perfect as it’s served.
We began our last course with Le Diplomate’s Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée. A sizable portion of crisp, cooled sugar forms a substantial yet somehow delicate layer atop thick, creamy custard with an eggy flavor that’s cut by the real vanilla beans peppered throughout. Every bite was cool to the tongue, providing a very French alternative to ice cream, the popular warm-weather dessert of choice–of course, they have that too.
The Dark Chocolate Napoléon is just one such dessert that masterfully incorporates ice cream into a complex after-dinner dish with layers both flavorful and metaphorical. Almond dacquoise forms the base of the Napoléon as chocolate mousse and layers of dark chocolate stack twice atop it. Bitter chocolate ice cream and caramel jam add sweet and cold to the mix, folding all parts together together in your mouth for a crunchy, smooth, warm, cold, salty and rich flavor profile.
The Coupe Glacée Pamplemousse, an incredible pairing of grapefruit and cream, was the highlight of an already stellar meal.The combination of grapefruit sorbet, petite almond financiers and cool, fluffy cream creates a unique consistency that makes it a bit difficult to get all in one bite but every attempt is well rewarded with flavor and texture that is all at once smooth, cold, tangy and fresh. The small almond financiers are moist with grapefruit juice for a dense (and thoroughly enjoyable) coating of sweet and citrus over your tongue. This is by far the most uncommon dessert I’ve had in quite a while and though it may not be for all, for the some it makes for the perfect summertime treat. I might even venture to say one could even skip a cocktail and order this on a hot day (though let’s face it, both are advised).