Dining at the Heights
April 18, 2017
I have been thinking about the jambon beurre at Mirabelle, the wonderful looking new restaurant near Lafayette Square where the Christian Science church used to be.
Frank Ruta is a friend whose meticulous food I love. You may recall he cooked dinners at Bread Furst after his restaurant Palena closed and before he went to the Grill Room in Georgetown. Last week, my first time at Mirabelle, I ordered a knockout squab, asparagus, and morel dish for dinner.
The Post carried a story about Mirabelle’s decision to price its luncheon sandwich at $26, calling it “another example of skyrocketing restaurant prices.” It is that but not just that. It is a pricing strategy, a definition of what Mirabelle wants to be in the competitive high end of restaurants in this city.
It is saying in its pricing, “We are going to be the most important restaurant close to the White House. We are going to be the restaurant choice of people to whom high prices are routine and irrelevant except as a statement of our importance and theirs. We are going to be the restaurant of people who wear Rolexes and drive Mercedes.”
A long time ago high-end dining in Washington meant French restaurants like Sans Souci, Place Vendome and Rive Gauche. That was a long time ago, indeed half a century ago, but there are now restaurants like Metier and Marcel’s that carry on in far more modern ways the tradition of high-end dining, meaning elegant food and elegant service.
That is not easy to achieve. I often think great service is even harder to achieve than great food. Charleston in Baltimore offers attentive yet unobtrusive service. I mean a dining room in which bussers don’t put tap water into a glass previously filled with sparkling water and no server interrupts conversation at the table, asking, “Is everything to your taste?”
Instead watchful wait-staff stand in the dining room looking for cues from diners that suggest someone might want something. Otherwise the dining room is quiet and restful.
Marcel’s is like that as are the restaurants of Eric and Celia Ziebold, Metier and Kindship.
I wish there were more because for some old fogies dining in well lit and very quiet restaurants is a wonderful and peaceful experience.
This style of dining is not for everyone. Lots of people, especially young people, like a more free-wheeling experience – lots of small plates, cell phone photographing, rollicking music, and action
I think that Frank Ruta and Hakan Ilhan intend Mirabelle to be a Charleston, a Fiola, an
elegant restaurant with polished service and great food. Still: $26 for a jambon beurre?
I would pay a lot for the squab with morels and asparagus, what I ate that evening. Or for the veal chop at Tosca. Or the seafood tower at Fiola Mare or the Métier potato salad with black truffles.
But $26 for a jambon beurre? I don’t mean to sound competitive because I am not; but Bread Furst’s jambon beurre consists of half of our baguette, Heritage Foods’ ham, a good Gruyere, and high-fat butter and we charge $10.
We are not at 16th and I Streets. We look nice, I hope, but we are not beautifully appointed.
We don’t have hand-made cheese carts and fresh flowers.
Most important, our clientele is our neighborhood.
I am not sure what to say about dining at the high end. Washington used to be a city in which going to “a fancy restaurant” meant going to Cantina d’Italia or Jean Pierre. Now we have so many choices in our city, so much variety at the high end and well suited to our times. We have Métier, Marcel’s, Fiola, Komi, Minibar.
Now, however – and this was not so in the past – we have many restaurants that cook wonderful food and charge more moderate prices. Older ones like Obelisk and the Oval Room. Newer ones like Mintwood Place, Red Hen, and Tail Up Goat.
So if it is not necessary to spend $200 to $300 per person on dinner – and that is what it costs when all is said and done in some of the high-end restaurants, then why do it?
For lots of people marking a birthday that way makes the evening very special. For others spending that much money is a wonderful evening’s entertainment like a seat in a Broadway theater that costs as much or more. For others the experience is rewarding in ways I don’t fully understand; it’s a way of being “in the scene.”
I believe that everyone is inconsistent in his/her spending on food. Some of our customers who gleefully spend $225 per person at Komi and $280 at Pineapples and Pearls think that Bread Furst’s prices are too high.
I who have never been considered a thrifty person don’t spend hundreds of dollars on a meal. I am hardly a Puritan but I just don’t feel good spending that much in a restaurant.
On the other hand, my wise friend Susan Friedland who for years was Executive Editor, Director of Cookbook Publishing at HarperCollins., chastised me a couple of months ago as I complained about the bill she, Maury Rubin of City Bakery, and I had just split on an excellent dinner at Le Coucou, “You loved the dinner. You loved the Dover sole. It’s too expensive? Do those dollars mean so much to you?”
I can imagine that for many people, perhaps most people who go to high-end restaurants, sitting outside on a beautiful spring day at 16th and I Streets, a block from Lafayette Square, justifies the price of a $26 jambon beurre.
Photo of Ziebolds by Washington Post, of Susan Friedland by the Boston Herald.