If any D.C. neighborhood could use a new food icon, it’s Adams Morgan.
For too long, the densely liquor-licensed area has been synonymous with one particular form of consumable. (Well, apart from the liquid kind.) I’m referring, of course, to that ungodly triangle of late-night gluttony, the jumbo slice.
With its super-sized proportions -- it measures as large as a foot and a half -- this ultimate grease bomb of sop-it-up dining has remained a symbol of excess and youthful recklessness in a commercial strip best known as a make-out spot for overserved Capitol Hill interns. The jumbo slice was chronicled ad nauseum (literally) in a 2004 feature in these pages.
Highlight: A caloric analysis found that a single slice weighed in at more than 1,000 calories. Michelin star material, it is not.
Sure, over the years, there have been tiny pockets of respectable dining along the fringes of the 18th Street corridor. Cashion’s Eat Place, for one, stands out as a rare eatery that prompts discerning and sober adults to open their mouths and wallets in Adams Morgan.
Still, even the critically acclaimed cooking of Ann Cashion and John Manolatos, who currently runs the restaurant’s kitchen, has done little to complicate the neighborhood’s longstanding image as a place more convivial to boozehounds than to chowhounds.
In recent months, however, Adams Morgan has experienced a modest spike in places that cater to grown-up tastes. Grungy dive bar Asylum, for instance, has morphed into Smoke & Barrel, a fashionably rustic joint that cranks out bona fide barbecue by Arkansas-raised pit master Vinni Waide.
And another once-dingy dive, the former Adams Mill Bar & Grill, has re-emerged as Southern Hospitality, with a menu offering at least a few hints of refinement, from the crab and avocado appetizer served in a martini glass to the New York strip in a Merlot reduction.
The neighborhood has even landed a more upscale brand of pizza with the recent arrival of Mellow Mushroom.
If this trend toward more legitimate eats continues, maybe one day, some stunning dish will eventually topple the jumbo slice as Adams Morgan’s most widely recognized culinary treasure.
But at this particular point in the area’s overall culinary development, I feel pretty confident in saying that the escargot hush puppy is not the savior.
The snail-stuffed ball of cornmeal is the signature element of chef Cedric Maupillier’s menu at Mintwood Place (1813 Columbia Road NW), the neighborhood’s most ambitious recent attempt at haute dining, which opened Jan. 29.
“It’s something that represents me and my identity as a chef,” says Maupillier in his heavy French accent. The 35-year-old toque, who’s been cooking Stateside for the past eight years, comes to the new restaurant with a pretty impressive résumé, having worked most recently under the esteemed Michel Richard at both Citronelle and Central.
The chef’s CV partly explains how Mintwood had managed a level of early hype that doesn’t ordinarily accrue to a new eatery opening right around the corner from Washington’s answer to Bourbon Street.
“Escargot is very French, so this is my roots,” Maupillier says. “And I knew that if I was going to do escargot with garlic butter on the shell, it might not get as much attention than if I use it in one of the most popular snacks in American culture like the hush puppy.”
The snails are braised with fennel, onion, and white wine, then sautéed in butter with garlic, shallot and parsley before being added to the corn batter -- along with still more garlic, more parsley, and buttermilk. The rolled snail balls are later fried à la minute when you order.
These Franco-American hybrid hush puppies, priced at $7, come served with a similarly complex dipping sauce that Maupiller describes as a remoulade with a dash of Pernod for a subtle anise flavor that is barely detectable on my visits.
As unusual as this snail-laden variety of the Southern staple might sound, however, it sticks with a proven formula in contemporary D.C. dining: Take a classic American comfort food, then add some fancy gourmet spin.
Compared to a truffle-drizzled mac ‘n’ cheese or a foie gras-topped burger, though, the snail snack takes a little more getting used to.
“When I opened the restaurant, I didn’t know if it was going to work,” Maupillier says. But, he adds, “it’s one of the most popular items on the menu today. I think people have a lot of fun ordering it.”
That’s probably because of the novelty factor.
Tucked inside its rusty brown crust, the fleshy black orbs sort of resemble chocolate chips, but taste funky, not sweet. After biting into the things for the first time and pondering the flavor with a puzzled look on her face, my dining companion came to this rather stereotypically American conclusion: “I’d rather have a real hush puppy.”
However fleeting the public’s fascination with the escargot hush puppy might be, Maupillier is undoubtedly a talented cook.
For a Frenchman, for instance, Maupillier makes one hell of a Bolognese. Credit a prior stint working for Italian chef Fabio Trabocchi at the former Maestro in McLean.
Hearty and downright heavenly on the palette, the $19 dish is even easier on the eyes. The presentation is practically pornographic, what with its leggy strands of glossy pasta, smothered in a buxom sauce of beef, pork, and veal all dolled up with red wine, fennel seeds, chili flakes, lavender, and tarragon, then liberally topped with freshly shredded Parmesan in a style somewhat reminiscent of a partly frazzled post-coitus hairdo.
Other dishes come off a bit less sexy. Maupillier’s current recipe for frog legs, for instance, calls for an earthy black walnut sauce that recalls a potent blue cheese, which even the chef admits may be a bit too overpowering for many diners. Maupillier says he plans to tweak that recipe come spring.
Fans of classic French fare will find a lot to like in Maupillier’s very filling cassoulet, which contains five types of meat and is cooked to a nice crust in Mintwood’s wood-burning oven. And locavores will be pleased with the chef’s seasonal specials, which recently featured rabbit served three tantalizing ways (braised leg, belly sausage, and grilled loin) with an Armagnac sauce on the side. Oh, and the $16 burger doesn’t suck either.
Diners expecting something vastly different from the all-too-ubiquitous urban take on rural aesthetics that now dominates the restaurant scene, though, will roll their eyes at the overly wooden motif.
Stuffed rooster? Check! Antique-ish milk-bottle display? How’d you guess? The stab at country style makes Mintwood Place seem indistinguishable from District Kitchen, Drew Trautmann’s similarly rustic throwback located just across the Duke Ellington Bridge in Woodley Park.
Mintwood Place is a charming neighborhood restaurant, to be sure. It’s just not the transcendent dining experience that comes to define a neighborhood as an up-and-coming culinary destination. The jumbo slices are safe, for now.
Still, Maupillier thinks it’s a big step in that direction.
“I believe the kind of food and service we provide at Mintwood Place is helping in giving to the people who live around here something nicer and not as young and not for the frat boys only,” he says.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
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Snail Pace: What Does Mintwood Place Mean for Adams Morgan Dining? was originally published by Washington City Paper on March 7, 2012.