Good news first: Marcel¡¯s is back in action after a water pipe burst just before brunch service Jan. 7, flooding the posh French-Belgian restaurant with more than two feet of water.
¡°The firefighters were savages ¡ª in a good way,¡± recalls chef-owner Robert Wiedmaier, who paints a picture of curtains being torn and ceilings being poked with emergency equipment. The estimated cost of the damage, including lost revenue and wages: $400,000 or so.
Thanks to some quick work on the part of a designer and others, Marcel¡¯s was able to reopen in time for Valentine¡¯s Day, one of the restaurant industry¡¯s biggest dates of the year. Eager to see what the refresh looked like, I invited a vegetarian to accompany me on a recent outing. The ¡°new¡± Marcel¡¯s, Wiedmaier told me, includes a four-course meatless menu, an option increasing in demand by customers.
En route to our table, I¡¯m reminded what a civilized restaurant this is. The lighting shaves a few years off everyone, the acoustics are so good you can hear a knife being sharpened in the distance and the staff are better suited than most of the people they¡¯re fussing over. The new, gold-flecked dark carpet, meanwhile, looks as though Klimt had a hand in its glint.
¡¯SWonderful? The potential is there. But honestly, I¡¯m a little embarrassed that while I¡¯m enjoying a first course of chive-freckled Dover sole on a fan of zucchini slices, set off with lemon butter sauce and brushstrokes of black mushroom puree, my table mate is presented with an ordinary arugula salad fluffed into the shape of a teepee. The olive-oil-glossed pistou soup that follows on the vegetarian menu is fine, but the straightforward comfort looks and tastes more like a staff meal than something from the kitchen of a prominent chef.
For entrees, I¡¯ve opted for totems of richly sauced quail circling a loose cake of wild rice, one of many possibilities on the $85 pre-theater script. My companion gets no choice. Her plate is a heavy¡¯s idea of playing light: sauteed mushrooms, including maitake, set atop a trio of uber-rich purees: fennel, onion soubise, potato with chive. The sepia composition, garnished with crisp potato threads, might have flown in 1999, the year Marcel¡¯s was born, but shows a lack of imagination in 2018. Where¡¯s the light(ness)?
Dessert, on the other hand, buoys her. Hazelnut dacquoise with pistachio ice cream makes an elegant and luscious finale.
Fingers crossed that spring provides the kitchen with more inspiration than winter has.
The tweaked Marcel¡¯s remains a restaurant of distinction ¡ª just not for those who eschew meat.
2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-296-1166. marcelsdc.com. Dinner from $70 (four courses) to $170 (seven courses).