Brilliant Brasserie
[from June 2007 issue]

No doubt now that Washington has become a major restaurant city, especially when two local high-profile chefs -- Michel Richard and Robert Wiedmaier -- open, in addition to their formal restaurants, their own casual eateries: Central Michel Richard and Brasserie Beck. The latter is the newer one, and judging by the crowds, Wiedmaier's Brasserie Beck may well be among the city's very hottest, hippest spots, with guests standing pressed against each other or thronged around bar seating -- unless they are among the lucky ones to reserve ahead for a table. Drop-ins are welcome, of course, but during prime time, good luck finding a seat, to say nothing of a table.

But no one seems to care, for waiting in the bar area becomes a super-charged social hour for the city's prettiest people. When there's a conversational lull, maybe they'll look around at the interior architecture, with its dark woods, repeating horizontal and vertical lines, and wide-open exhibition kitchen where all of the culinary action takes place.

Design aside, Wiedmaier's food is the main draw. One of the city’s most talented and celebrated big names, Wiedmaier (of Marcel’s fame, his high-end restaurant in the West End; he has named his two restaurants after his two sons) has assembled a stunning collection of casual offerings, reflecting his Belgian roots and his American panache. In addition, his beverage manager has come up with two complete portfolios of wines and brews with enough to satisfy the most demanding palates. I’d go for this beer, said the waiter to my friend, and it turned out to be sweet and enticing, like a dessert beer mousse. That was before dinner, when the basket of hot, fresh bread and sweet butter arrived.

With each course he brought successively more intriguing brews, ending with another sweetish beer with apple overtones, the perfect partner for the complex pear tarte tatin: it’s a pastry crust soaked and cooked in a buttery caramel sauce wrapped over pears, and as a final flourish before going to the table, the cook drizzles the whole tart with a second swirl of caramel and tops it with cinnamon ice cream. Wiedmaier’s other sweets may find an audience, but nothing else he offers could cause such aching sweet-tooth dreams.

Unlike Marcel's menu, however, Beck's is easier on the budget, and even the priciest entrée comes to only $24, which by DC standards is very affordable, if not exactly dirt-cheap. We have been told the menu will stay basically the same year round, though the waiter suggests that the menu will make several seasonal adjustments. If the fates would grant one wish, it would be that Wiedmaier's swoonable choucroute "en croûte" would be a menu mainstay. Gently browned puff pastry wraps around a savory filling of sauerkraut, pork sausage, and other luscious goodies, and the whole assembly rests in a slick of a sweet-savory reduction.

Another wish: A forever access to the appetizer roulade of duck confit, a mix of foie gras, braised duck leg meat, and chopped scallions, formed into a roll and crisped with a quick sizzle in a hot pan. Its sauce is the essence of duck flavor with a hint of golden raisins and apricots. And its garnish? A toss of micro greens. Also superb if you don't mind the calorie and cholesterol count is Wiedmaier's braised pork belly, a sure winner for those who adore tender, flavor-packed bacon in a smooth and creamy incarnation.

What else? You might want to share -- or keep to yourself -- the steamed mussels in a wine-apple-curry bath and sided by buttery, slender Belgian frites, or fries. You can make this the main course if you also add on a salad or the stolid pea soup with veal cheek meatballs. (On second thought, the soup and mussels don't really complement each other.) Other favorites, the waiter said, were the crispy skate wing, and the surprise of the week, the sellout of coq au vin, a cold-weather entrée that, nonetheless, attracted DC's warm-weather crowds.

Nothing is absolutely perfect, and that's true even here. It's the acoustics, or lack of them. Unless you are semi-enclosed in one of the booths, the restaurant's wide-open spaces and high ceilings allow sounds to float unhindered, just about obliterating normal conversation. But I'd put up with a talk-free evening for a serving of the roulade and an order of the pear tarte tatin in its caramel bath. They are brilliant.

Brasserie Beck / 1101 K St., NW; tel., 408-1717. Hours: Lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-5pm; Dinner, Mon.-Thu., 5-11pm & to 11:30pm, Fri. & Sat. Entrée price range: $16-$24. Major credit cards accepted.

Copyright (c) 2007 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Alexandra Greeley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §107 “fair use”).

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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