Eating French Inside The Beltway

Eating French Inside The Beltway

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You don’t need to reserve a table weeks in advance as you would if you were in Paris. However, don’t try just showing up. Marcel’s is one of Washington, DC’s premier restaurants and has been since it opened in 1999.

The reasons are numerous. First, the food is very good and beautifully presented.

Chef/owner Robert Wiedmaier oversees his green-tile-faced open kitchen, (complete with more gleaming hand-made copper pots and pans than you can count – in fact, $80,000 worth) with exacting precision. Contrasted with most other restaurants, Robert refuses to employ anyone in the kitchen or in "the front" of the house, who does not view the restaurant business as a career. "You won’t find students working their way through college here. I’m only interested in employing professionals," says the 42-year-old, who was born in Germany, of Belgium and American descent.

Against his parents’ wishes, he attended the Culinary School of Horca in the Netherlands and subsequently worked in two Michelin-starred restaurants in Holland and Brussels. Cooking was really his passion.

Wiedmaier moved to Washington in 1986 and was employed in some of the most prestigious French restaurants of the era. In those days, Washington had more fine French restaurants than perhaps it does today. Jacqueline Kennedy’s love for French cuisine was the inspiration for many French chefs to gravitate to the Nation’s Capitol.

The amiable (and clearly disciplined) Robert went on to head some restaurants located in Washington’s best hotels and garnered positive press clips and reviews from area food critiques and the public. He was invited by the James Beard Foundation in 1997 to prepare a dinner in its "Best Hotel Chefs of America" category.

Word has it, though, that he didn’t truly come into his own until he opened the restaurant (formerly Yannick Cam’s Provence restaurant) that bears the name of his then newborn son, Marcel. Wiedmaier softened the original restaurant’s décor by adding curtains and personalizing the terra cotta floor interior design by separating some of the areas and adding touches of his own style.

His menus are innovative and definitely French, with a Flemish influence. However, he took into account that some people might be the steak and potatoes type and includes some special items for them.

I began my meal with two perfectly grilled scallops that were set on a puree of peas and napped with a tomato coulis. Then came an enormous veal chop topped with a cream of morel (precious mushrooms) sauce. My dining partner (in crime) touted the chef’s soups as some on the best anywhere. His main course was a crispy raie (filet of skate) accompanied by a purée of mixed vegetables and a lemon caper sauce. We were both served fresh vegetables presented in heavy cast iron dishes made by Staub.

Even though we vowed "no desserts," I caved in and went for a chocolate soufflé, while my dining partner was served a plate of homemade sorbets since he was on a diet. Some diet–and the portions are certainly larger than what I’m used to in the City of Light.

The wine list is predominantly French, with some California wines represented. It was extensive, with bottles ranging in price from $42 to substantially more.

Even though Robert admits to not writing down any of his recipes, he trains his staff to follow him. His two "seconds-in-command" can fill in if Robert is away. Not all chefs have the confidence to assemble such a strong and cohesive group. But this chef claims it’s his team of twelve that keeps the meals leaving the kitchen so they are not just tasty, but looking as though they are ready to be photographed for Gourmet magazine.

While discussing food trends in Washington, the exuberant chef was fast to say that what has changed the most since he arrived in Washington is the nearly instant ability to obtain the highest quality of products, whether it be caviar, produce or seafood. Robert receives shipments daily and says he has little to no fresh food in the kitchen at the end of each day. Diners take this for granted in better restaurants in Paris. However, it’s not the norm in most U.S. restaurants, which tend to stock enough food for more than a day.

Tom Burke, Marcel’s general manager, is another real asset. Tom makes it his business to know the restaurant’s clients, make them feel welcome, and, I suspect, insure that some guests are seated nowhere within ear or eyeshot of others. The night I recently dined chez Marcel’s, a highly ranked Bush administration official was seated at an-out-of-the-way table, most obviously in deep discussion over a critical issue with his companions. Knowing who is who and what is what is essential in this city of politics.

When it comes to service, Marcel’s is one of the few D.C. restaurants in which I have eaten where the waiters actually anticipate clients’ needs before they have to wave for more bread. Even though the restaurant can accommodate 120 covers per shift, Robert says that’s pushing it for his floor staff of 17.

Because of this, the chef has instituted a $42.00 three-course pre-theater dinner where diners are limousined to and from the nearby Kennedy Center. Rather than rushing through dinner, these diners are invited to have dessert (and perhaps an apéritif) after the performance.

Marcel’s isn’t just about food. It’s also about music. Pianist Alex Jenkins plays in the bar after 6:30 pm (except for Sunday and Monday nights) and has quite a following. Stop in after 9:00 PM if you’re a lover of "oldies but goodies" and soft jazz. Robert said that he doesn’t want his restaurant to be known as a bar, but rather a restaurant with a bar.

Before I left Marcel’s, chef Robert and I had a few minutes to talk. Although he loves France and Europe, he would never want to move back there. During his most recent trip to the City of Light, he was appalled (well, amazed) at the prices the three-star chefs were able to command. We gossiped a bit about the Paris restaurant scene, and it was evident that this man (a bit reminiscent of a teddy bear) was born to be in the kitchen and that for him, cooking is a gesture of creative love.

Marcel’s

2401 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20037

Tel: 1-202 296-1166

Fax: 1-202 296 6466

Dinner: Monday- Thursday: 5:30 – 10:00

Friday & Saturday: 5:30- 11:00

Sunday: Brunch: 11:30 – 3:00

Dinner: 5:30-9:30

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