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La Grande Boucherie restaurant review: the Titanic of D.C. restaurants

by ballyhooglobal.com
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From the moment it opened in April, dozens of you have asked me if I’ve visited La Grand Boucherie, the splashy French talker near the White House.

Inevitably, the question is followed by either another question — “How does it compare to Le Diplomate?” — or, if my inquisitor had already sampled La Grand Boucherie, their one-word judgment.

So far, “bad” vies with “awful,” along with eyerolls and thumbs down.

Everybody seems amazed that the space — the historic National Bank building on the corner of 14th and G streets — sat vacant for nearly 30 years. And lots of us can admire how the Group Hospitality, based in New York and led by founder Emil Stefkov, elevated the already good bones of the interior into even more of an eye-catcher with the help of $10 million and artisans in Europe. Behold the pewter bar, coaxed from an ancient mold! Note the 15-foot-high sculpture that greets arrivals! “Our version of the Statue of Liberty,” jests Stefkov. Early descriptions of the 14,000-square-foot expanse, outfitted with the city’s most-gilded ceiling and graced with a century-old chandelier, read similar to those of other anticipated spectacles — say, the Titanic. So big. So grand.

Meals there are indeed nights to remember, but not in a good way. From a culinary standpoint, La Grand Boucherie bears as much resemblance to the beloved Le Diplomate as T.J. Maxx does to Galeries Lafayette. Baguettes bend when you want them to snap, hot food frequently arrives tepid, the French onion soup borders on dessert, and halibut with carrots — Ambien on a plate — is something that might fly at 30,000 feet but not in a restaurant with any aspirations.

More spoiler alerts: For a place that puts such an emphasis on meat (boucherie references butchery), steak frites is cooked past the medium-rare we request and gets most of its moisture and flavor from a knob of herbed butter. Rack of lamb is dragged down by a reduction of lamb jus that’s heavy as a lead apron and salty as the Dead Sea. I love omelets for lunch, and this one, filled with ham and cheese and free of any brown spots, looks like a textbook version. A few bites in, I push the plate — essentially, a yellow salt mine — away.

The decor does its best to divert your attention. Stefkov says his company is “trying to revive epic buildings around the country, and eventually the world.” (La Grand Boucherie’s other branches are in New York and Chicago.) In a phone call from Lisbon, where the native of Macedonia owns a restaurant carved from a 400-year-old convent, Stefkov tells me, “I find Washington, D.C., to be the most elegant city in the U.S.”

The owner knows he took on too many customers too soon. “Obviously, we can’t make 4,000 people a week happy,” says Stefkov, who says he has addressed complaints by cutting back the number of reservations and enlisting mystery shoppers. Smart moves, but four months in, the 450-seat La Grande Boucherie still acts like a wreck waiting for a tow.

Chef de cuisine Ahmed Ibrahim is a native of Egypt with three science degrees and a restaurant résumé sans prior Gallic examples. His past employers include Kona Grill, the American concept owned by ONE Group Hospitality, parent to the unfortunate STK collection of “vibe-” focused steakhouses, and the Spanish watering hole Barcelona. For sure, the chef has his hands full, watching over nearly 30 cooks in Le Grand Boucherie’s sprawling kitchen, visible behind glass on the main floor, which is dramatically accessed by a steep set of stairs paved in red carpet.

“I come bearing gifts!” a gregarious server announces one night. I want to believe him. I do, I do, I do. The reality on our plates is more like penance: The pink tuna tartare is a snooze of an appetizer, while salmon rillettes, served with a ball of herbed butter in a little glass jar, is so dense I’m tempted to ask for a drill because my spreader isn’t cutting it. A tomato salad is so overdressed, there’s no tasting the tomatoes. Grainy bars of duck breast set off with orange segments come with apples poached in saffron syrup, which sounds intriguing but smacks of old perfume. Bon appétit, gang!

Take a deep breath. The air is heavy with the scent of fried potatoes. Give in to the subliminal advertising and order a burger and fries. They might be the best pairing on the menu. No need to upgrade to the wagyu model; the patty built partly with chuck, joined with brie cheese and set in a tender, toasted brioche bun is plenty satisfying. The kitchen does right by french fries, too, soaking Idaho potatoes in cold water, cutting them by hand and frying them twice.

A few other dishes rise to the occasion. Oysters on the half shell are cool, well-shucked introductions. Escargots are solid, too, reminders that butter and garlic improve pretty much whatever they douse. And kudos to the bar, whose life rings embrace a winning combination of vodka, sparkling wine, lychee, cranberry and Lillet Blanc, a.k.a. La Vie en Rose. When the thermometer approached triple digits outside, I revived myself at La Grande Boucherie with a nonalcoholic swirl of watermelon, grapefruit, lime and fresh basil, as thirst-quenching a drink as I’ve encountered all summer.

You might be hungry after turning in unfinished appetizers and entrees. Consider filling in the gaps with some light profiteroles, robed in dark chocolate sauce at the table.

Ultimately, too much of the menu, which includes such large-format dishes as suckling pig, leads me to wonder if food critics can file for hazard pay.

Service proves a mixed bag. For every genial host and deft waiter, there’s someone pouring water as if the table were in flames, interrupting conversation, and someone who doesn’t bother to write down an order, so has to ask again. Long gaps between courses sometimes have diners looking at their watches. “Did the chef go on vacation or what?” a pal asked during one “War and Peace”-length wait.

Grand doesn’t necessarily translate to comfort. Some of the seating shows why restaurants should audition everything diners touch before they buy it. The tiny table two of us were led to one visit would have worked in an ice cream parlor or espresso joint, but not in a restaurant where multiple courses are part of the drill. The sweep of the restaurant can’t obscure a few other facts. That acres-long red carpet already looks like it could use a good shampoo, and I noticed a hole in the linen on my table the last time I dropped in. And yes, that’s a food stain on the paper menu. Details, details.

My initial inclination was to ignore La Grande Boucherie. D.C. brims with French restaurants, after all, most better than this one. Location, location, location makes the arrival hard to dismiss, though, and the job of a critic includes writing warnings as well as raves, or at least telling readers where they might want to spend their hard-earned money. La Grande Boucherie is not that place. Further, the owner intends to install a couple more venues within the building, one Italian, the other Japanese, yet this year.

Meanwhile, the next La Grande Boucherie is destined for Miami. Poor thing.

La Grande Boucherie

699 14th St. NW. 771-208-4804. boucherieus.com. Open for indoor dining and takeout 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to midnight Saturday and Sunday. Prices: Dinner appetizers $18 to $32, main courses $28 to $78, large-format dishes $170 to $600 (for whole suckling pig). Sound check: 76 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: An elevator on the street level goes to the second and third floors. Bar includes space for wheelchairs. Restrooms are ADA-compliant.



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