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Having a reservation doesn’t have to mean that you’ll blend into the party, as the host at L’Etoile must realize. I walk in and need a place to sit. “Wherever you think you’d feel comfortable,” he says, gesturing to two different tables: one next to a party of roughly 20, including a full litter of babies and toddlers, the other in the midst of a quieter bunch stationed behind him. The quieter group turns out to be pretty chatty. For a good while, the party to my right chats up the party to my left as if I, still waiting for my friend to arrive, weren’t sitting between them. It goes on like this until the guy at one table asks the guy at the other table if he’s ready. Then he asks me, “Do you mind if we sing a song?” “Of course not,” I answer, before asking myself, Am I expected to know the words?
A mixture of cluelessness and agnosticism made it possible for me to arrive at this kosher restaurant on a Friday, not to mention the first day of Hanukkah, expecting a secular affair. All of my previous meals at L’Etoile had been standard dining experiences, excepting the profusion of clients in yarmulkes and thoughtfully bushy beards. But the weekly Shabbat dinner (there’s also a Saturday lunch) is something else. When the reservationist asked for my credit card number over the phone, I assumed that it was simply to ensure that I’d show up. In fact, I was paying for my meal in advance: $33, including tax and tip, for four courses prepared under the watchful eye of the staff mashgiyah, stationed in the kitchen to ensure that everything’s kosher. “This place is a blessing for us,” offers the orthodox diner to my right, who’s taken a break from prayer and song. “Now we can eat out on Fridays.”
People of faith seem to have come out of hiding ever since L’Etoile opened in early November, just as owner David Dahan was expecting and hoping. The concept behind the restaurant is particularly ambitious, given that it comes with built-in restrictions: Kosher laws don’t allow for the kind of culinary possibilities available to the butter-and-cream-wielding aesthetes downtown. Yet L’Etoile is shooting for the top shelf anyhow. Its menu includes pate, sweetbreads in puff pastry, creme brulee, and a $27 veal chop; you could easily get through dinner on a normal weeknight and not notice anything unusual about the place. The idea is not only to give orthodox Jews a fancy place to dine, but to get the goyim to the table without alienating them once they’re there.
Aside from the row of lit columns that back the host’s station, L’Etoile’s space is modest, too small to suit a truly minimalist design but a shade too elegant to feel homespun. And the food suggests competing temperaments at work. Soups, for instance, are very good; a North African harissa soup is shot through with the citric kick of saffron, which nicely cuts through the lentils and lamb, and the herby, tomato-based fish soup is the highlight of our Friday night meal. But the majority of starters are less tradition-bound and in dire need of fine-tuning. Grapefruit vinaigrette tastes like bad medicine over smoked salmon, and the accompanying sweet potato latkes are dull and cold. Grilled shiitakes are wasted under a syrupy balsamic infusion. And the kosher country pate lacks the lusciousness and spreadability of its secular inspiration—a nice, peppery item, given the restrictions, but not the kind of thing that comes to mind when one thinks of playing matchmaker with crusty bread.
L’Etoile is billed as a French restaurant, but it’s a little more far-flung than that; prime rib is included among the house specialties, and the kitchen churns out three different pasta dishes. The entrees during regular service are good but not mind-blowing, with the possible exception of a golden Cornish hen stuffed with rice, dried fruits, pistachios, and sausage, a bird that I reduce to a pile of bones before I even realize that there’s a bed of spinach underneath it. Roasted duck breast comes fanned around a pile of cooked, cinnamon-scented red cabbage; it’s a fusiony, vaguely Middle Eastern-tasting dish, and the rosy rare, crispy-edged duck is cooked to perfection. The braised lamb is a touch stringy, redeemed by a subtle olive sauce, and the salmon coated in ginger, soy, and sesame oil would fit nicely on the menu of a decent pan-Asian restaurant. L’Etoile’s full-menu entrees aren’t ordinary by any ordinary standards. They’re ordinary by $20-a-pop standards.
The economics change considerably during Shabbat meals—along with, unfortunately, the meals themselves. Our Friday dinner is pretty much a train wreck: The fillet of beef, mounted on a circle of hard noodles (“Chinese pancake,” according to the menu), is dry, tough, and naked, even though the menu promised horseradish and mustard sauce. The salad’s limp. The cod fillet is cold. The servers are underinformed and preoccupied. The chocolate cake tastes as if it were made in another state. It’s not lost on us that people, entire families even, from uncles to nephews, have come to have not just food but faith. The whole scene—the prayers, the songs, the yarmulkes, the feeling of people getting what they once never had—is, frankly, uplifting. But it’s also perplexing. In such an environment, is it kosher to complain?
L’Etoile, 1310 New Hampshire Ave. NW, (202) 835-3030.
Disregard the fast-food vibe and the vibrating pagers that you’re handed upon ordering: Max’s Kosher Cafe is a tradition-bound kosher joint, the kind of place where hot dogs are sweaty, pink monuments that curl upward like the grin on a cartoon snowman. That said, I seek the place out for the stuffed cabbage: two lumps dripping a thin,
sweet-and-sour gravy filled with a rice-and-beef mixture that’s, well, mostly meat. Added bonus: You can put mustard on absolutely anything here, and no one will look at you funny.
Max’s Kosher Cafe, 2319 West University Blvd., Wheaton, (301) 949-6297.—Brett Anderson
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