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The napoleon is one of the more enduring cliches in modern restaurant cuisine. It’s a dish to marvel at, a structural essay as much as something to eat. Its skyward-reaching layers, whether sweet or savory, are meant to suggest the chef’s raging imagination; its architecture signals that wherever you may be is no ordinary place. Napoleons often come heavily ornamented, strewn with sauces like a room strung with Christmas lights. Eating one—does anybody really know how to eat one?—always seems a shame. And, too often, it is.
Enter Butterfield 9’s comestible minitowers. I tend to favor horizontal over vertical cuisine (call me old-fashioned), but the beet napoleon here is sensible, lovely, and built for consumption. Red and golden slabs of beet are stacked to a modest altitude, interspersed with crumbled goat cheese. Sheer leaves of endive and driblets of beet vinaigrette color the plate in a symmetrical design. Walnuts finish what’s essentially a perfect salad—tart, summery, intensely beety. The raspberry napoleon isn’t quite as sublime; the jarringly sweet fruit sauce is, as my friend puts it, “like that stuff from a jelly doughnut.” But the pastry layers remain crisp against creamy cushions of orange custard, and, in what amounts to a freak of physics, the edge of a fork slides through the dessert without toppling it onto its side.
The food at Butterfield 9 is often like this—so spruced up that you brace for flaws—but in the end, it’s all just honest cooking tailored for a night downtown. The restaurant’s the latest venture of Amarjeet Singh, a guy whose track record suggests that he knows how to hold the reins. No matter who’s been in the kitchen at New Heights, Singh’s restaurant in Woodley Park, the adventuresome food has seemed to benefit from his seen-it-all palate.
Butterfield 9’s early success, of course, isn’t all Singh’s doing, but you have to credit the restaurateur for making good hires. Chef Martin Saylor’s food is full of flourishes; in cooking for celebs on Martha’s Vineyard (he also spent four years at the VIP-saturated Hay-Adams Hotel), the fancy cooking-school alumnus no doubt learned that diners of a certain ilk like their supposed singularity to reflect off the tines of their forks.
The good news is that there are serious chops behind the veneer of almost everything Saylor creates. There’s something practically homespun about even his most eclectic inventions; the foie gras he encases in an herb “pancake” is easily the most genial riff on the delicacy that I’ve had this century, and the softshell tempura bedded on a cold, sharp Asian slaw is flawless.
Elsewhere, the chef simply makes up-to-the-minute expense-account fare taste worthy of its price tag. Fresh herb coulis and Parmesan give plump wild-mushroom agnolotti all the support they need. Each spoonful of smoked tomato soup carries an invigorating, spicy depth charge. The anchovy-topped Caesar isn’t a bad call if you’re in the mood, although the lighter green salad, lacquered in a fabulous hazelnut vinaigrette, is a better order. Chorizo- and mushroom-stuffed squid is the only appetizer that really misses its mark: The sausage overwhelms everything, and when you factor in the avocado-pepper relish, the net result is a plate of squishy stuff. Play near the edge for long enough and at some point, I suppose, you’re bound to fall off.
Butterfield 9 (the name, says a waitress, was inspired by an old Myrna Loy movie, not the Liz Taylor flick Butterfield 8) occupies the lower floors of the old Garfinckel’s department store downtown. On separate occasions, our various waiters gush to our table that the old store was one of the last of the “classics,” and whatever that means, Butterfield’s renovation experts have given the restaurant a sporting chance of aging into something similarly timeless. The color scheme is all about blond wood and creamy, unobtrusive hues. It’s a deceptively cavernous space, with smaller dining rooms sprouting from points on the main room’s perimeter and good-view ringside tables on the mezzanine overhead.
The fairly reserved dining rooms are becoming to much of Saylor’s food. Horseradish-crusted halibut is a dish I thought I’d never care to see again, but Saylor’s rendition deftly balances over melted leeks and celeriac mousseline; the horseradish is a faint, whispery presence. The white-bean ravioli wedged between rosy, grill-crisp lamb chops could be an entree unto themselves, and the filet mignon in Roquefort butter comes with a delicious, blintzlike potato-onion crepe.
Food this chic is always expensive and rarely uniformly smart. The appeal of Saylor’s juicy smoked pork loin, for example, vanishes beneath a fusillade of fruit (apple marmalade, huckleberry sauce), and the codfish crowned with truffled brandade afloat in corn-clam chowder is essentially an oversalted stew. But Butterfield 9 has an uncanny way of staying grounded. The staff speaks plainly about the menu, and the bread baskets are first-rate. And even if that napoleon doesn’t pique your interest around dessert time, there’s a full list of teas that probably will.
Butterfield 9, 600 14th St. NW, (202) 289-8810.
One reader is so taken by the mere sight of Real New Orleans—”It’s all purple and yellow and just really nice”—that she insists I visit even though she’s never even tried its food. Her instincts prove to be pretty decent: Crisp, thickly breaded, just-bigger-than-popcorn shrimp are so numerous in my po’boy that I don’t bother trying to reinsert the ones that spill out, and the jambalaya, though a little mild for my liking, tastes like a time-tested recipe. And as far as service goes, this little takeout could give restaurants a few miles higher on the price scale lessons in efficiency and warmth. Moments after my order’s placed, one staffer gets busy on my bun, another preps shrimp for the fryer, a third tends to the jambalaya, and a fourth deals with my change. As I grab my bag to leave, everyone crowds into the window to wave good-bye.
Real New Orleans, 1845 7th St. NW, (202) 299-0333. —Brett Anderson
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