The Name of the Game
[from November 2003 issue]

Perhaps the most telling part of dinner at Dupont Grille--the rather racy addition to Dupont Circle's dining scene--is its community presence. Seated in the Jurys Hotel’s uniquely structured dining room, which looks and feels a little like a glass atrium, patrons have the eerie feeling of participating in the street’s goings on as they look across toward the ever-present Starbucks and Riggs Bank beyond.

Take a recent dinner. Crowds gathered in noisy knots in and around Dupont Circle, a scant few paces away from the New Hampshire Avenue entrance to Dupont Grille. Loud harrumphing and pounding echoed with the night sounds, and brief snatches of big band music swelled through. Benny Goodman and Swing? No, of course not. But the foot-tappers had the same spirit and crowd appeal, and underscored why what's happening is happening on Dupont Circle’s streets. And eating in its almost-alfresco dining room/patio/terrace gives its patrons a front row seat for the action. That is, unless the maitre d' happens to sit you way inside, which does not seem to be his first choice.

Surely not every night is party time in the Circle, so when sidewalks are quieter, you can simply eat, gaze out, and reflect on the nature of Washington, food, and possibly your companions. You can also drive yourself crazy deciding which of Chef Cornell Coulon's various appetizers and entrées will fit your bill.

According to local press, Coulon is a protégé of none other than Emeril (Lagasse, of course), the New Orleans chef who needs no further introduction. Having not sampled Lagasse's preparations, I'm hard-pressed to say just what the influences of his Cajun-style former boss might be on Coulon. But his menu has very little of the Cajun, Creole, or frankly, Southern influence you might expect. Instead, Coulon takes a much more solidly contemporary American approach, wresting his food from regionalism to a much broader scope. After all, what fiery Cajun cook would turn out Cashew-Crusted Tempeh, a much more high-flying, big-on-trendy dish than, say, an Oyster Po' Boy?

And who could pass up this French/Belgium delight, Steak Frites? Not me, that's for sure. Coulon takes this idea and runs. And instead of serving a thin, pan-grilled number with thin, twirly fried potatoes, he slices up a rare, tender steak into tidy strips, and sides them with a mountain of fresh, hot thick fries--and passes on a parsley-flecked butter. And--it seems there's garlic everywhere! Other entrée temptations include pan-roasted grouper, prosciutto and spinach-wrapped tuna, and a grilled ribeye with a smoked gouda-white corn polenta. Study the entrée selections as you might, you will find it hard to pin down any Cajunese.

But Coulon's Southern hand slips in at least one non-Yankee dish: the gumbo of the evening. That's one way to begin the meal, but I'd say a better bet--assuming you like squid--is Coulon's flash-fried squid dusted with the finest of lemon zest. Other possibilities include a Shrimp Ravigote, a Chicken and Mushroom Napoleon with apple and pickled ginger slaw, and the Dupont Grille Chopped Salad. The last might well be expanded into a full-meal salad, I’ll bet.

Sorry to say that the dessert menu is not loftier. You can turn to a warm chocolate cake, a white chocolate-cranberry bread pudding, or assorted ice creams, plus one or two other things. It almost seemed that the waitress apologized for so few choices, or maybe nothing really appealed because the garlicky steak still had me in its thrall.

Dupont Grille, 1500 New Hamp. Ave., NW; tel., 939-9595. Hours: breakfast daily; lunch, Mon.-Fri.; dinner nightly; brunch, Sat. & Sun. Entrée prices: $16-$28. Major credit cards accepted.

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