A new chef at 1789 picks up where his predecessor left off
Nathan Beauchamp stepped into some big pumps in January when he replaced Ris Lacoste in the kitchen at 1789. One of the city's most visible female chefs, Lacoste had enjoyed a mostly smooth, decade-long ride at 1789, which she left after New Year's Eve to mull opening a place of her own.
During Lacoste's tenure, the 44-year-old establishment in the shadow of Georgetown University blossomed into a destination for modern American cooking. Oyster stew and rack of lamb shared the menu with orange-scented red bell pepper soup and salmon fragrant with Persian spices. Whether you were a conservative or a liberal eater, you were assured of finding something to entice you at 1789.
You still can. Beauchamp is young (31 next month), but he brings impressive credentials to the stove, having worked first for chef Jeff Buben at Bistro Bis on Capitol Hill and then under chef Cathal Armstrong at Restaurant Eve in Old Town Alexandria. Beauchamp obviously picked up some valuable lessons during those two tours of duty. Which explains why the woman at the table next to me is getting excited. "These snails!" I overhear her tell her companions. "This pastry!" she continues.
I know exactly what to order when my server asks whether I want an appetizer. "I'll have the escargot in puff pastry," I tell him. The snails are tender and meaty, nestled in a delicate shell and accented with a vivid parsley sauce. It's just a few ingredients, but they're all prime. Is there a chef with aspirations who doesn't serve foie gras? Beauchamp does the delicacy honor, marinating the duck liver in brandy and white pepper and serving it in a rich round, with elegant garnishes of shaved roasted pineapple, pistachio brittle and clear sauternes jam, the last a nod to the sweet white wine that marries so famously with foie gras.
Another showy opening act is 1789's creamy-textured steak tartare, garnished with a sunny quail egg on top and a handful of fried capers on the plate. The raw meat, spiked with roasted jalapenos, is scooped onto shards of smoky flat bread for a racy sort of chips 'n' dip. But before any of these starters, patrons get a gratis snack from the chef. One night it's a demitasse of carrot soup with a drizzle of beet juice; another time it's a bite of asparagus with ribbons of prosciutto from Virginia. Whatever the combination, the amuse-bouche is light and lovely.
Beauchamp writes a menu that celebrates the season. So ramps, asparagus, soft-shell crabs and rhubarb colored his plates in April and May. Based on a recipe used at the very good Thai Square in Arlington, those sauteed soft-shells were dynamite, crusted in toasted jasmine rice and splashed with an electric sauce of pink peppercorns and rice vinegar. Matchsticks of pickled rhubarb lent a tangy note to an entree of sweet diver scallops perched on a bed of polenta.
My first taste from the new chef, in late March, was mixed: Short-rib raviolini revealed tough pasta, and grilled quail was deliciously smoky but accompanied by sweet dates (nice touch) that were refrigerator-cold (brrr . . . and grrrr). Yet my tongue and my stomach high-fived each other in response to just about every dish on each passing visit. The chef's designer pork chop is thick and full of savor, enhanced with sweet carrots and a thick block of crisp-tender bacon that melts on the tongue. And perfectly cooked tilefish gets an elegant escort of diced lobster, English peas, fava beans and pearls of Sardinian pasta cooked in lobster stock.
The kitchen still serves rack of lamb, and it remains a solid choice. Thickly cut and with just enough fat to carry its flavor, the meat comes to the table rosy and juicy, with a cheesy potato galette and creamed spinach that is not too rich. Tradition at its best.
Speaking of tradition, 1789 is one of a handful of area restaurants that maintains a dress code. The reservationist will remind gentlemen to wear a jacket (but not necessarily a tie) for dinner; if they forget, the restaurant maintains a stock of 36 blue blazers in a variety of sizes. Use the time on the phone to request a table in one of the rooms on the ground floor, which is home to the stately John Carroll Room, replete with hearth; the clubby Pub, just off the entrance; and the Manassas Room, wrapped in wood from a pre-Civil War barn and decorated with vintage prints. One of the dutiful servers might point out an interesting feature suspended from the ceiling there: What looks like a giant coffeepot with holes in it is an old pig scalder, surrounded by small lanterns. If possible, avoid the upstairs dining areas, which look underdressed (hey, why not make them conform to a fashion code?) and lack the charm of the first-floor venues. Beauchamp's food deserves a better backdrop.
In an age when people think nothing of wearing gym clothes to a meal away from home, or yak away on their cellphone in public as if they aren't bothering anyone, the gentle formality at 1789 is downright refreshing. Servers in black captain's jackets and bow ties can answer any question about the food and setting, and they pamper you through dinner like charming hosts in a mannered home. From the moment you call to reserve to the moment you leave, you are in exceptionally capable hands. The restaurant's young valet parkers are some of the best anywhere. Who stands out front matters at 1789, says executive manager Mark Kibbe; the valets are "the first thing people see."
A lot of restaurants fade at dessert. 1789 impresses diners right through the finish, not so much with fireworks but with honest flavors and solid craftsmanship, courtesy of pastry chef Zoe Behrens. A wedge of chocolate mint torte gets a faint crunch from a wafer in its middle; the dessert tastes like an after-dinner mint, only more luscious. An ice cream sandwich made with lemon ice cream and almond meringue is inspired, reminiscent of an old-fashioned icebox cake. And admirers of carrot cake will find a recipe to lust after here. Lovely as they all are, I'm partial to fruit desserts. One of the best this season is a warm galette of rhubarb and strawberries. Its flaky crust and floral bergamot ice cream greatly flatter the centerpiece. But you're not done yet; with the bill comes chocolate-covered peanut clusters that you try to resist but can't (and shouldn't).
The guard has changed at 1789, but the bar has not. It's still high. With any luck, we'll have Beauchamp around for as long as the talent that preceded him.
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, June 18, 2006