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Not every French chef can pull off playful food. Locally, Chef Michel Richard did so at Central with his bacon cheeseburger, and Convivial Chef Cedric Maupillier sends plates like fried chicken coq au vin out to the dining room on the daily. Come March 29, Chef Raphael Francois will join the party. The rockstar-ish chef with piercings and a bushy red beard as thick as his charming accent has been tapped to lead the kitchen at Le DeSales in the former Panache space in the Golden Triangle section of downtown.
Francois, who was born in Tornai, Belgium but spent most of his time in Paris, stares stuffiness in the face. Though his resume includes gigs at Michelin-starred restaurants in Belgium, France, and London, his menu at Le DeSales is not fine dining. Highlights include appetizers ($8-$25) like sweet potato served with maple syrup and marshmallow; entrees ($16-$31) like a burger that invites guests to peek in a special cheese case should they want to make it a cheeseburger; and a few sharable entrees like lobster and fries ($55).
Simplicity is the goal. “At the end of the day, the best food to eat is what you eat from your parents, and what you eat from your parents is simple,” he says. “Obviously we have to make it nicer, a bit polished, but still simple.” He’s also not afraid to serve food that your doctor doesn’t need to know about. “The trend now is to make food a little bit lighter, but I like rich food too,” he says pointing to a T-bone steak and a crab dish fit for gluttons.
Francois will employ French techniques but is also celebrating the fact that he’s in the U.S. “I always dreamed to be in America, it was a teenage dream,” he says. “I love American people and the country itself.” There was at time when Francois struggled to obtain a visa, putting his American dream in jeopardy. “But now I have my green card.” He’s long been a friend of Le DeSales owners Aziz Safi and Farid Nouri, so when they decided to reinvent Panache, Francois was a perfect fit.
The food menu informs the cocktail menu, which mixologist Lukas B. Smith has dialed up. “We’re not trying to be a French bar, so don’t think Le Diplomate,” he says. “Part of what makes eating and drinking in France regionally interesting is that they draw from where they are.” He’s building cocktails with lots of subtle layers—similarly to how a French chef would build sauces—and calling it a “symphonic” approach.
The house Old Fashioned ($14), for example, contains a syrup made from white port, foie gras-washed Angostura bitters, and Angel’s Envy whiskey aged in port barrels. Vegans and vegetarians can swap in bitters that haven’t mixed with meat. But be careful, it goes down smooth.
Another drink Smith expects to be popular is the Le DeSales gin rickey that catches the eye with its vibrant green color from dill, calamus, bergamot, and neroli (orange blossom essential oil). It tastes herbaceous, grassy, and like it’s good for you.
Smith explains that Le DeSales is trying to capture what’s going on in Dupont Circle right now. “We’re getting more into neighborhood-centric dining,” he says. “So it needs to be comfortable and cozy.” And it is. Areetoon Jayanan Architecture & Interior Design carried out a major renovation creating an eye-catching space with a dramatic S-shaped bar, white-washed the bricks, and funky artwork.
Le DeSales opens March 29 for dinner. Hours will be Monday-Thursday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. and Friday-Saturday from 5 p.m. to midnight. Lunch will follow in April and a few weeks after that, weekend brunch.
More photos below.
LeDeSales, 1725 DeSales St. NW; 202-506-6856; ledesales.com