It's been more than 20 years since Daniel Boulud was working in D.C., first for the European Commission in the 1980s and then briefly in the restaurant world. But when he left town for New York, he always thought it'd be a possibility that he might return. His new CityCenterDC project, an outpost of DBGB Kitchen + Bar opening Sept. 13, "was not the first time we were approached" to do something here. But other opportunities were never quite the right fit, even though he seriously considered opening up a restaurant near the Ritz-Carlton years ago.
But the idea of CityCenterDC excited him when he was approached by the developers almost five years ago. "They're trying to create a little bit of a village here," he said, citing the Penn Quarter development's retail, restaurants, farmers market and events. "I saw kids playing in the courtyard the other day...it's an exciting project."
The D.C. Boulud left behind was a very different food city, dominated by institutional restaurants, "old fashioned restaurants," steakhouses and yes, many French restaurants. Boulud's friend Patrick O'Connell was just getting The Inn at Little Washington off the ground. "What he was doing was very French; writing menus every day, being seasonally-driven," he said.
Though Boulud left town, he always stayed connected to Washington, seeing friends, doing charity work and returning "to party," he said with a laugh, reminiscing about going to punk rock clubs not far from Georgetown. He has a vivid memory of the late Jean-Louis Palladin cooking him a 30th birthday meal in D.C. of at least a dozen courses, many based on live animals. "He was throwing live she-crabs on the table, live lampreys," he said. Other memories include dinners with Michel Richard, and grabbing a quick bite at Bistro Francais in Georgetown.
Boulud made the decision to open DBGB Kitchen + Bar in D.C., one of his more casual restaurants and an established brand in New York. "I've worked hard to make a name for myself as a fine chef, doing fine dining," he said. "But I always enjoy cooking casually, and I really enjoy DBGB as a restaurant...for me, this is [our] fun place. We want to be a place you can come in once week, just grab a bite if you're passing by. We don't want to take ourselves too seriously, and we certainly don't want the diner to take themselves too seriously." He acknowledges he's heard some criticism from D.C. diners for not opening up something more like Daniel, his signature restaurant. "But there can be only one Daniel," he said.
When Boulud replicates a concept elsewhere, about 40-50 percent of the core menu and beverage program remains the same to act as a foundation for the restaurant. DBGB's D.C.-specific touches will include nods to the Chesapeake Bay, as Boulud associates the town with his own time spent cracking crabs and drinking beer with friends. "We'll crack the crabs for you and have the beer nice and chilled," he said. D.C. will have its own burger, called The Crabbie, accented with a crab topping. "It has a good crab umami flavor," he said. There is also a Maryland Crab Persillade appetizer similar to a crab gratin.
Many of the D.C. restaurant's dishes, such as a harissa lamb chop and an Alsatian tart flambee, are influenced not only by the DBGB location in New York, but Boulud's other restaurants such as DB Bistro Moderne. A pancetta-wrapped trout dish was inspired by one Boulud had on the menu 20 years ago at Daniel. "Like in fashion, ideas come back in style and get reinterpreted in a new way," he said. Like in New York, the menu has an extensive sausage selection, speciality cocktails and more traditional brasserie dishes.
Unlike in New York, DBGB has a second floor for private diningupstairs. The restaurant will be able to rent it out for private parties, and ideally hold events such as whole hog dinners in the months to come. They'll start brunch service the third Sunday after the restaurant opens. The restaurant will be open all day, with a more limited bar menu available during off-times.
Boulud has no plans for additional D.C. restaurants, at least for now. "Don't push it," he said with a laugh. "I'll leave that to José [Andrés]. It's his town."
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