Terrell Danley has a strange weekend routine for an up-and-coming chef who once ran the kitchen at Georgia Brown’s and has worked under some of the area’s most distinguished culinary minds. He wakes up at 6 a.m. and heads into his 7-month-old restaurant, Creme (pronounced “cream”). There, he mans the breakfast shift. A task that’s usually left to assistants, breakfast is Danley’s favorite meal to cook, and he takes seriously his menu’s printed request to “[p]ut Creme’s brunch to the test.”
When it comes to passing along his breakfast credo to sous-chefs, Danley proceeds carefully. He takes on only one student at a time, teaching the techniques that make breakfast an elevation of simple pleasures, following the philosophy that “a stack of pancakes should be a stack of pancakes.”
Danley is so obsessed with a.m. fare that his initial concept for the restaurant was an all-day breakfast joint, complete with a “mimosa menu” in lieu of a martini menu. The restaurant’s partners, however, didn’t warm to the idea of an upscale Denny’s on the chi-chi U Street strip. Danley would have to settle for a more conventional cafe and lounge that rises and shines on the weekends.
The entire Old City, it seems, is rolling out of bed just behind Danley. The buzz around Creme regularly packs the tiny, earth-tone-and-stainless space to its exposed beams, and waits for tables can be 40 minutes or longer. Sit at the more accessible bar, and you can expect never to hit the bottom on your bottomless $10 bloody mary or mimosa.
Good thing, then, that Creme serves alcohol-absorption vehicles not readily available at places such as Adams Morgan’s also often-packed Diner. Chicken and waffles, a fascination among starfuckers who’ve heard of the famous Roscoe’s in Los Angeles, has become a brunchtime favorite at Creme. Two pieces of crisp, juicy fried chicken ride atop an eggy Belgian waffle, the whole thing dusted with powdered sugar. If there’s a better hangover cure than this salty, lightly sweet pile of carbs, fat, and protein, don’t waste precious time searching for it.
The kitchen has a skillful hand with more traditional brunch specialties, as well. Egg dishes are all served with lightly dressed greens and a mound of herby grape-tomato relish. A flat-iron steak is cooked to order and served with soft and buttery scrambled eggs. A bargain at $13 is the Chesapeake Benedict: Danley’s most inspired invention—a bread-crumb-less crab cake containing lump meat, mayo, parsley, and green onion and bound in a spring-roll skin—is cut in half, smashed onto the grill, and served over an English muffin with poached eggs and Old Bay–spiked hollandaise. Yes, it’s a $13 “breakfast.” But you’re eating it at 1 p.m., and chances are you won’t want to eat again before dinnertime.
For those looking for more “unch,” the midday menu contains a handful of items imported from Creme’s dinner selections, among them the salty Mama Laura’s Chicken and a smaller, less expensive portion of the winning shrimp and grits, wherein a modest pile of shrimp and spicy andouille slices sits in a buttery, garlicky broth over remarkably creamy instant grits. The only missteps here are the slightly overpriced $4 sides—including four pieces of bacon and wan and undercooked breakfast potatoes—and the $8 fruit-yogurt-and-granola plate, whose promised “tropical” selections consist of unremarkable melon and pineapple slices and a few blueberries.
As the day wears on, Creme’s offerings get a bit more unreliable, not to mention pricier. Oprah’s Tomato Salad is a sweet-tomato-marmalade-filled puff pastry surrounded by dressed greens, the same seasoned tomato relish that appears at brunch, and a couple of buzz-killing wedges of watery “vine-ripened” tomatoes that are less flavorful in winter than their ruby color would suggest. The juicy, Worcestershire-doused burger is accompanied by giant, but bland and undercooked, “fat fries.” The Meat & Potatoes Americana is well-executed, with its sweet, caramelized beef short ribs and wedge of rich and toothsome potato gratin. The meat is served propped up on its bone, a rustic and attractive addition that also performs the oft-employed trick of making the portion seem larger than it is. Indeed, this smidgen of beef, no matter how tender and flavorful, doesn’t quite rate its $18 price tag. You can get as-good or better upscale-American dinner choices a stone’s throw away, at Local 16 or Cashion’s Eat Place; it’s at breakfast that Creme’s chef really distinguishes himself.
And if you don’t trust a critic, trust the in-crowd. On lazy weekend days, employees of such popular eateries as Zola, Hank’s Oyster Bar, and the District Chophouse regularly park at the bar, where they eat, drink, and shoot the shit with Danley. If restaurant workers are choosing to spend their off-hours sipping endless mimosas and eating well-cared-for waffles, then how far away can that all-breakfast place be?
Creme, 1322 U St. NW, (202) 234-1884.
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