Taste Test: Menu MBK
stephanie | Feb 3, 2014 | 12:30PM |

Words and photos: Stephanie Breijo

Throw a dart at anything on Menu MBK‘s menu–be it from the bottom floor’s market, the chef’s table or the top two floors’ full-service bistro–and you’re guaranteed to hit something delicious. We’d expect nothing less from Frederik De Pue, one of D.C. fastest-rising culinary stars and the chef behind Table, one of our favorite restaurants of 2013.

Though we couldn’t help but feel a tinge saddened at the news of Azur’s closing in Penn Quarter, we were thrilled to explore Menu MBK, De Pue’s new three-tier concept. Imagine our excitement when we sat down to dinner at the bistro.

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The BistroBar’s menu–European-and-American-influenced bistro fare–is mouthwatering, to say the least. Though the menu warns of potential daily changes, expect items like lamb sausage with frisee and egg mimosa to crispy sunchokes with romesco sauce and almonds; and those are just the appetizers.

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“Technically immaculate, it’s what he does with his slick talent that really sets him apart. His relationship with the characters has all the dramatic tension of a real life double act” – The Guardian Paul Zerdin has helped make ventriloquism cool again. From the Royal Variety Performance to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, to India’s comedy circuit, Montreal’s Just For Laughs and UK tours with his Sponge Fest show and forthcoming Puppet Master tour. Paul’s fresh twist on this traditional comedy art has impressed everyone from Her Majesty the Queen onwards. “It is Zerdin’s sharp script that is the heartbeat of the show” – The Times Crucially, Paul Zerdin appeals to both comedy club and mainstream audiences in equal measure. The UK’s number one ventriloquist’s career has included appearances on everything from the Royal Variety Performance, Paramount and Comedy Central’s, The World Stands Up to ITV Daybreak, BBC TV’s The One Show, Sky News and Jason Manford’s Comedy Rocks. **** "Pure audience gratifying magic” – Time Out With Paul’s winning combination of technical skill, hilarious ventriloquism, charm and impeccable comic timing, Paul Zerdin’s live shows see him bring to life several very different characters amongst whom are the cheeky pre-adolescent Sam, belligerent OAP Albert and precocious infant Baby and in 2012 on his Puppet Master live tour, Paul will be introducing a new character! “I see myself as a one man Muppet sitcom, reining the characters in” commented Zerdin. “The old man has a thing for the ladies and so does Sam who is about to become a teen and knows naughty words. Between the two of them they lead the baby astray and the baby, of course, wants to know everything. I think it is important to have characters that people can relate to rather than, say, talking sheep which are less believable”. Simply put, Zerdin is the man who can make ventriloquism look cool” – The Stage Zerdin, who got the ‘biggest laugh of the night’ at the Royal Variety Performance in 2009, according to audience members, also went on to get 5 star reviews at that year’s Edinburgh Festival. Paul returned to Edinburgh to sold-out houses in 2010 and made his debut at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival that year before embarking on a major UK tour with Sponge Fest in 2010/2011. That Paul Zerdin should make his career in show business is not entirely unexpected “my mother was a BBC Radio 2 presenter and my father worked for the BBC World Service, so my sister and I spent a lot of time in the studios”, he reveals. When Paul was 10, a family friend made him a puppet theatre which he used to put on shows. As he is the first to admit, his hobby quickly grew into an obsession. “The real turning point was when I was given a book on ventriloquism by the legendary Ray Alan. By the time I hit my teens I was spending half an hour a day in front of the mirror practising talking without moving my lips.” Having failed his GCSE’s in spectacular style, Zerdin got a job in a magic shop, developing his magic skills along the way. Simultaneously, he was also developing a sideline as a children’s entertainer. “Compared to my friends and their measly paper rounds, I was raking it in!” he laughs. Zerdin made his TV debut as a magician on the BBC’s Tricky Business and shortly afterwards, at the age of just 20, landed a two year contract presenting the Disney produced kids’ programme Rise and Shine for GMTV. In 1996, Paul was the first outright winner – by over 100,000 votes of LWT’s The Big Big Talent Show, hosted by Jonathan Ross. The experience not only raised his profile, but introduced him to Nigel Lythgoe, the man who would go on to create reality shows such as Popstars and American Idol. Lythgoe took the 22 year old Paul under his wing, paving the way for appearances on scores of shows, Tonight at the London Palladium, and Generation Game among them. It was Nigel who gave Paul his first brush with Royalty when he secured him a spot on the Prince’s Trust Gala Show in 1997. “That was a totally surreal experience”, he laughs. “I was sharing a dressing room with Julian Clary, Alan Davies and Frank Bruno with The Spice Girls next door”. By the late nineties it was obvious that traditional variety shows were losing their appeal and it was then that Zerdin decided to introduce stand-up into his routine, a decision that has paid off handsomely. From Ray Alan through to Keith Harris, ventriloquists have been a staple of UK entertainment for years, but it has taken Paul Zerdin to bring his mix of stand-up and ventriloquism to the forefront of contemporary entertainment to truly put ventriloquism on the comedy map.
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We began with the cauliflower panna cotta, served with capers and almonds. This savory starter’s creamy base plays well off the texture and depth of roasted cauliflower and would do well in nearly any season though the heartiness of the vegetable was perfect to warm us up in winter. If you’re in the mood for seafood, you might do well to order the calamari, grilled & fried, with peperoncini, lemon confit and charred garlic, or even the black escargot with pickled daikon.

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From there we moved to the entrees, both fresh and light (but still punctuated with flavor) as De Pue does so well. The seared Skate wing was tender alongside lemon brown butter, creamy parsnip puree and sauce gribiche; the dish is a delicate and fresh balance of herb and Skate. The winning plate, however, was the confit pork loin with hubbard squash and mint gremolata. The pork–perfectly juicy–and fresh mint pair well with the purée, which is the softer of two forms the hubbarb squash takes. The other, roasted and taken fresh from the oven, lends an earthier depth to the dish.

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From there we sampled from both BistroBar’s dessert menu and Cheese Chariot (a godly creation if we ever heard of one), both fulfilling paths to after-dinner bliss. The chariot, hosting a variety of specialty cheeses, will rotate its selection with almost all options available for purchase in the market’s cheese case.

The desserts are worth a visit alone whether you’re more of a vanilla (try the panna cotta with orange blossom, pink grapefruit and pistachios) or a chocolate (served with spicy ganache and pretzel sable that’s more akin to a fresh cookie). If you’re feeling adventurous, do order the sundae of caramel popcorn ice cream, Coke sorbet, and nougat ice cream for a gourmet spin on classic at-the-movies fare.

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“It looks all refined but we keep very few ingredients on the plate,” De Pue said. “I want to keep a menu where everyone can really come.”

With a menu–and plating–like this, we might judge you if you don’t.

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