To understand the scale of detailed planning that went into Dauphine’s, look at the low side of the split-level bar that divides the dining room at the highly anticipated New Orleans-style restaurant opening in downtown D.C. on Friday, May 7. Walk past the metal well where Mid-Atlantic oysters and clams sit on ice, and peek behind the wooden block where cooks butcher whole hog sides brought in from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Then take a minute to appreciate the hanging country hams, genoa salamis, and Sazerac bresaola visible through tiny windows built into in a custom meat fridge that looks more like an antique armoire because it’s lined in dark wood panels that match the siding of the bar and the tabletops placed throughout the dining room.
Long Shot Hospitality, the D.C. restaurant group that hit it big by infusing a Chesapeake sensibility into New England seafood traditions at the Salt Line, appears to have invested a whole Louisiana Purchase inside the Midtown Center development on 15th Street NW. That includes a mezzanine with a wrought iron railing and palms that may inspire customers to hurl Mardi Gras beads at the diners seated below. Outside, there’s a fully covered bar with four frozen drink machines and a tiled fountain stuck to the side of it.
The commitment to this tribute project goes beyond the aesthetics from Grizform Design Architects. The Dauphine’s website contains a reference page listing local farmers and purveyors. It also serves as an encyclopedia of New Orleans culinary history. Neal Bodenheimer — a founder in the nationally acclaimed bar Cure, credited with ushering the craft cocktail trend into New Orleans — is a partner in Dauphine’s who reproduced a historical recipe of the Hurricane and workshopped an absinthe rickey. After initially billing Salt Line’s Kyle Bailey as the chef of the project, Long Shot worked Bodenheimer’s connections to recruit Kristen Essig from New Orleans to D.C.
Essig, who has worked at Emeril’s and spent more than 20 years studying Cajun and Creole cuisines in the city, agreed to leave town after a breakup with her partner at contemporary Southern restaurant Coquette. Bailey is in charge of the Dauphine’s boucherie menu, a reference to Cajun hog harvesting traditions, and Essig oversees the rest of a menu (see full version below) that interprets Louisiana cooking with a mix of Southern and regional East Coast ingredients.
“You want to be careful that you’re not doing some Epcot version of what people think [New Orleans] is,” Essig says.
She’s bringing in long grain rice from Prairie Ronde, Louisiana, just north of Lafayette, and showing off big glass jugs full of black small-batch cane syrup from producer Charles Poirier in Youngsville, Louisiana. Her friends at Leidenheimer Baking Co. (established 1896) are sending frozen, par-baked loaves recognized as ideal of po’ boy bread. Essig uses them as the base of Peacemaker sandwich that piles fried oysters with debris, a classic New Orleans roast beef gravy that she’s making with braised cheeks. She’s dubbed that dish a “napkin changer,” prompting servers to expect requests for a new napkin after it hits the table.
“The food is meant to be messy,” Essig says. “You’re supposed to be involved.”
Another nod to the South is the inclusion of mirliton, or chayote squash, which proliferates in Louisiana and is often served stuffed and baked. Essig’s latest version is shaved to retain its crunch, then served with julienned apples, crispy pig ears, and candied Georgia pecans.
Essig is making the first iteration of what will be a seasonal gumbo with all shellfish (crab, oyster, and shrimp), marking a first for her, she says. That bowl of stew starts with a roux made from toasted flour and cooked to the color of dark chocolate. Instead of a mound of white rice at the center, it’s got a helping of potato salad. With consideration to the Atlantic coast, she’s serving rockfish amandine, not trout, and a blackened soft shell crab Creole where catfish or redfish might otherwise stand in.
The chef’s desire to cut down on waste and willingness to accept challenges come to light on a plate of grilled cabbage served in an etouffee sauce. Bodenheimer insisted no one could pull off a vegan etouffee, and Essig is careful not to classify the dish that way, but she used that dare as a starting point. The outer leaves of whole-roasted cabbage heads add flavor to a vegetable stock at the base of the dairy-free sauce; the roux is oil-based, in this case. Slices of cabbage are placed on the sauce, then topped with pickled mushrooms, herbs, and a crunchy mix of seeds and spices that includes coriander seeds.
Charcuterie boards (three meats for $18) come with a “seasonal” mustard, which Essig explains is another way to use leftover ingredients like a strawberry shrub from the bar. Bailey, who says he’s “wise in sausage years,” developed a pickled hot link recipe to extend the shelf life of a product that young cooks are often excited to make but can’t sell fast enough. An all-pork grind gets poached in pork fat and preserved in a malt vinegar solution, then sliced to serve alongside items like homemade hog’s head terrine. There’s also a banh mi-style chicken liver mousse Essig dresses up with jalapeno, pickled carrots and daikon, and a sprinkling of a citrus ground down from whole black, dried satsumas stored in jars around the restaurant.
“I have lots of powders and potions,” Essig says with a smile.