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There are places that make you feel special. Then there are places that think they’re making you feel special when in fact they’re just reminding you how special they are. Put the recently arrived Leopold’s Kafe + Konditorei in the latter group.
That’s not to say that this restaurant/lounge/bar/coffeehouse doesn’t deliver on many of its implicit promises. It’s just that while you are likely to swoon over an expertly roasted chicken or a delectable pâté or a superb Sacher torte, you are just as likely to find yourself cursing this sleek, airy lair of a place for its boundless presumption and oozing hauteur.
Begin with its location, embosomed among overpriced boutiques along a discreet little alley off M Street in Georgetown. The restaurant’s East Banc Inc. ownership group has spoken to the Washington Post about the desirability of being difficult to find—the better, one presumes, to discourage the squealing teenagers and middlebrow tourists who threaten the high tone of Georgetown. The ambitious Cady’s Alley development, which the restaurant’s partners also control, aims to retain its exclusivity with a hushed, members-only privacy typically found in gated communities and country clubs. It’s working: My three visits to the modish, minimalist cafe turned up nary a teen nor tourist (though I did see an awful lot of men with sweaters tied around their necks, a good deal of air-kissing, and ample evidence to suggest that I might want to look into buying Botox stock).
The partners apparently have a New York fixation, not to mention a desire to make a splash, as revealed in their kitchen hires. They plucked chef John Johnson and pastry chef Nancy Kershner from Town, a Midtown Manhattan foodie temple awarded three stars by the New York Times.
It all contributes to the raging self-confidence that runs through the place, and, perhaps, to a concomitant carelessness. Sitting down to lunch a few weeks ago, I went unacknowledged by the staff for 10 minutes: no menu, no glass of water, no greeting. I’m all for any restaurant that looks favorably on the European practice of leaving its satisfied customers in peace to while away the afternoon, but Leopold’s seems to have missed a crucial element of the equation: You can’t be satisfied if you haven’t had any food or drink.
Lest you think Leopold’s is merely an insufferable, ungracious, too-trendy-by-half place, I am here to tell you that it is an insufferable, ungracious, too-trendy-by-half place with frequently marvelous food. Many dishes evince a fine-dining rigor, minus the fine-dining flash and derring-do plating. And without the markup you might expect: The highest-priced entrees are $21.
Vegetables are seldom as impressive as Leopold’s grilled asparagus: thick, meaty spears shorn of their woody, frequently bitter barnacles, their tips as green and tightly packed as in cookbook close-ups. Good as the generous shavings of pecorino are, and the tangle of tender mâche, these accouterments pale beside the stalks’ subtle, smoky char.
The kitchen’s command of the grill is also apparent in the beautifully crosshatched salmon. The steak is butterflied and folded back on itself—a process that results in a juicier-than-usual piece of fish. And its complementary parts—a scattering of medjool dates; a tangle of thin, shaved fennel tossed in a bright citrus dressing; and a rim of basil oil—are sharp, lively, and interesting.
The Austrian dishes, for all their innate heartiness, are no less finely wrought. The veal schnitzel, a winter dish if ever there was one, comes across as the very embodiment of spring, lightly breaded and quickly fried and bedded atop lemony field greens. There’s no sense in trying to lighten up a crock of spaetzle, and the kitchen doesn’t try; but it does create more than the usual cheesy, gooey interest by caramelizing the thick, nubby noodles, scenting the dish with a generous pinch of nutmeg, and applying a finishing crunch of crispy fried shallots. And the oxtail soup is constructed from a clear broth that somehow sacrifices none of the richness of the Old World original.
As tight and orderly as the back of the house is—as careful, for the most part, as the front of the house is careless—it’s not immune to the occasional drift of focus: an unreduced white wine in the pot of mussels, too little acidic wake-up in a beet salad. And a propensity for oversalting mars the spaetzle, very nearly upends the oxtail soup, and completely undoes the crostini topped with fava beans.
No visit to Leopold’s is complete without a slow survey of the lighted pastry case, which includes a trio of finger sandwiches and a dazzling profusion of pies, tarts, and cookies. Life in a chilled, lighted tube is perhaps to blame for the occasional dulling of flavors or shells that are a trace less crisp than intended (a danger with the tarts), but this is first-rate pastry: elegant, light, gently sweet.
One afternoon, my wife and I had just finished polishing off a perfect caramel-chocolate torte—the conclusion to another excellent meal—when a server swung by our table to ask, “Have you been helped yet?” This after we’d waited nearly a half-hour for our coffee. And gone without bread at the start. And sat without menus for seven minutes.
Somehow, though, as the partners behind Leopold seem to know, there are a lot of us out there who can almost ignore being ignored, so long as the food is worth waiting for.
Leopold’s Kafe + Konditorei, 3315 Cady’s Alley. (202) 965-6005.—Todd Kliman
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.