Michelin-starred chef Nicholas Stefanelli has already flexed the Italian (Officina, Masseria) and Greek (Philotimo) halves of his heritage. For his latest culinary feat in D.C., Stefanelli leans into his classically-trained French foundation with the debut of Le Clou.
Situated off the lobby of The Morrow Washington DC, Curio Collection by Hilton, Stefanelli’s modern spin on a French brasserie seats 75 across a gilded dining room dotted with swirled marble tables and sleek leather booths (222 M Street NE).
The French feast at day-old Le Clou calls for abundant seafood towers, frisee salads, Hudson Valley foie gras, escargot, frog legs, steak frites, French onion soup, and delicate trout. Stefanelli shows off the first winter black truffles of the season in a veal sweetbreads dish alongside cauliflower and sauce gribiche. Le Clou’s chef de cuisine Nico Cezar, who worked with Stefanelli at Masseria and (now-closed) Bibiana, was most recently cooking at Tonari.
“I’ve always loved French cuisine and its world of wine,” says Stefanelli, a graduate of L’Academie de Cuisine. “This brings me back to being 20 again and getting yelled at by [L’Academie founder] Francois Dionot for not having the soup hot enough.”
His longtime love for Champagne is no secret in the city (Officina and Masseria are stocked with some of the finest selections in town). At Le Clou, a custom Champagne cart en route from France will soon start roving around the dining room and adjacent Lobby Lounge with a dozen daily by-the-glass options in tow. Stefanelli is such a proponent of bubbles, he even pushed for a mini Moët vending machine in the lobby. “I am the one who ordered it,” he says. “I love it.” Flash a drinking-age ID to a hotel receptionist for a token that dispenses $20 bottles out of the glowing machine that’s visible from the street.
The wheeled Champagne cart is just one of several roving delights at Le Clou. A French cheese trolley will tote around 12 sought-after selections at a time. Tableside cheese service is also a cherished attraction at three-Michelin-starred Inn at Little Washington. Bottles of Cognac and Armagnac will work the room too, offering diners after-dinner pours of top-of-the-line French brandies.
Le Clou, open for dinner service to start, will eventually be an all-day affair. Look for breakfast, lunch, and brunch to join the mix by the end of January. Its posh Lobby Lounge extension, lined with white oak columns, travertine flooring, and plush furniture, will also offer coffees, juices, and elixirs by day. The in-room dining menu is tight by design, limited to just 10 items from Le Clou.
“We really want everyone to come out of the room and be in the restaurant,” he says. Plus, shellfish doesn’t exactly like to travel or wait outside the door.
“I can send you [one-ounce Osetra] caviar service to your room, though,” he casually adds. Another Le Clou splurge is its cote de beouf — a 28-ounce bone-in ribeye aged for 30 days alongside Fourme d’Ambert cheese ($148).
Stefanelli says the overall menu inspiration stems from legendary recipe book Le Répertoire de La Cuisine. Widely considered the Bible of French gastronomy, he remembers poring over its pages as a student at L’Academie de Cuisine.
“That book opened my eyes to what the cuisine was, especially as I got older and more into the creative process. I always go back to that book,” he says. In fact, he still carries around his original copy.
Since locking down the Morrow project 18 months ago, he’s made three trips to France all in the name of R&D. After traipsing around Lyon, Paris, Dijon, Burgundy, Champagne, and the South of France, he spotted a fresh, lighter take on the classic cuisine that he adopts at Le Clou.
“We have new cooking equipment and techniques that can be applied to things that weren’t available 150 years ago,” he says.
Le Clou’s wine list bounces around the same famed French wine regions he visited, from Côtes du Rhône to Bordeaux. Le Clou opens 609 labels strong (and over 4,000 bottles of inventory). A glassy wine wall in the dining room prominently displays rows of reds, with whites kept cool in the back.
“Like everything we do in our programs, wine is a very big focal point,” he says.
Le Clou is conveniently close to his Michelin-rated Masseria in the Union Market district (a six-minute walk, to be exact, or straight shot on his 350 cc Vespa). Over there he’s deep in truffle time and plans to shave white and black varieties through NYE. Meanwhile, Philotimo remains closed for now after sustaining fire damage this year.
Come early 2023, Stefanelli will spearhead two more food and beverage ventures rising in the 203-room hotel. That includes a rooftop lounge and bar that pairs panoramic views of the Capitol Building and Washington Monument with cocktails, wine, charcuterie boards, and light bites. And an intimate cocktail lounge on the 11th floor called Vesper will offer caviar service, elegant starters, and live music.