Words and photos: Stephanie Breijo
Working in the restaurant industry can be a treacherous profession. In the ever-expanding arena of D.C. dining, a restaurant’s fight for survival lends new meaning to the words Hunger Games and, as it often goes for fledgling establishments, so it went that Azur, Frederik de Pue’s short-lived seafood establishment in Penn Quarter, recently closed. What’s sprung from the ashes, however, is nothing short of a foodie oasis; while we know we’ll miss those lobster rolls at Azur, Menu MBK–part bistro, part artisanal market–is exactly where we’ll be dining as early as tomorrow.
Enter through the bottom floor of de Pue’s new multi-story concept and you’ll notice the atmosphere–warm, relaxed, almost pastoral–feels familiar. If you’re a fan of Table, de Pue’s acclaimed Shaw restaurant, you should feel right at home in Menu MBK’s market, which opens tomorrow; to dine at its bistro counterpart, you’ll have to wait until next Thursday.
There are wooden shelves packed with an overwhelmingly large selection of local goods (Gordy’s Pickles, anyone?) as well as specialty salad dressings, jams, butters and sauces, all made in house and sealed for your enjoyment at home. To the right there sits a pastry case, which, come tomorrow’s opening, will be stocked with house-made American pastries that scream comfort food; cinnamon rolls, cakes, pies and cookies. Stroll through the market and you’ll also find an array of cheese and charcuterie from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, as well as fresh pasta, grits, rice, milk, yogurt and, well, you get the idea.
There are dried mushrooms, pickled vegetables, house-made onion jams with bacon, dried beans in bushels, glass-bottle sodas displayed in vintage housewares and every creed of cracker.
Its beer and wine selection, which reflects the upstairs bistro’s offerings, are a mix of classic Old World styles alongside American expressions of similar brews, like a Belgian triple and a Chaalis Belgian triple.
Working your way up the steps you’ll find Azur’s open kitchen has been painted orange–a calming and warm room where six lucky diners at a time can enjoy de Pue’s new five-course menu beginning mid-February. Each month, de Pue and his team will choose five ingredients available in the market, which they will showcase at the chef’s table.
Expect nothing modernist about this two-seatings-per-night menu; here you’ll find classic stews and roasts and casseroles which we’re sure will hit the spot in this cold season. de Pue’s chef’s table, which only takes reservations by phone, can craft a unique menu based on vegetarian preferences or other dietary restrictions. Should a dinner party call a week or two ahead of their reservation, he tells me, the kitchen is happy to oblige any requests, like a pasta-heavy menu or an inclination toward poultry (at $65 per person, we’re positive this tailored menu is a steal).
The top two floors of Menu MBK are full-service bistro with 50 table-service seats and a bistro bar decorated with–you guessed it–reclaimed wood (from chateau doors, no less). The lower of the two levels boasts a casual, well-furnished atmosphere; stylish couches, paintings and rawhide lend a perfectly chic setting for a level open throughout the day. (Yes, there is wi-fi and yes, you can buy a sandwich or a coffee at the market and eat up there and yes, we will be perching ourselves here constantly).
With hanging wall plants and an intimate, low-lit chandelier–Azur’s trademark glass centrepiece has been stripped bare–Menu MBK’s top level makes for a perfect Penn Quarter date destination.
“I like that people can come here and sit back and listen to music and be a part of the building,” de Pue tells me, surveying the room from a comfortable spot on the couch. We couldn’t agree more.