Over the past four years, I’ve been conducting extensive social research into dining habits (nitpickers would call it eavesdropping), and what I’ve found is this: There are roughly 1 zillion restaurants that are absolutely, beyond any shadow of a doubt, perfect. To hear people speak of memorable meals is to understand that the definition of perfection is conveniently liquid when applied to dining out. One restaurant may be considered perfect for its expert handling of abalone, while another may rank just as high simply because it serves oily pizza at 3 a.m. I recently listened to a reader attach a computer screen’s worth of hyperbole to a seafood restaurant at which she’s tried only one appetizer. She’s allergic to all things aquatic, she explained, but she’s dating someone who becomes a raging nympho at the mere sight of raw bivalves. “Trust me on this one,” she implored. “You’ve got to try this restaurant.”
Taking into account what we know about restaurant perfection, let’s say that Cafe Deluxe is more perfect than most. And by perfect, I mean perfectly functional. In Deluxe’s four-years-plus of existence, the restaurant has never been the place, yet it’s managed to become a social locus for a relatively diverse, albeit racially distinct, set of Washingtonians. Getting a table requires patience, not an all-access pass, and in the crowd you’ll find an archetype of nearly everyone currently living in a gentrified portion of Northwest.
The original outlet, north of Georgetown, is a cannily conjured space that begs not to be judged in terms of its food alone. Of course, this is the objective of practically every new restaurant in America, but a quick survey of the scene tells you that there’s something going on here, and that even if you don’t like it, that something is going to continue going on whether or not it suits your approval. Running into people you know at Cafe Deluxe only ratifies how much a part of the larger pack you really are. It happens to me every time I’m there.
Prime-time lines at Deluxe, which doesn’t take reservations, are as predictable as the tides, and they present its operators with a seemingly enviable quandary: How do you increase business at a time when business is so good that increased business could turn out to be a royal pain in the ass? The answer, not surprisingly, is to expand.
Deluxe’s new Bethesda branch is nothing more or less than an attempt to establish a brand; from the big mirrors to the checkerboard floor to the necktie-sporting waiters and waitresses, it’s a virtual carbon copy of the original. The menu, like the space, is a minimalist affair that draws its inspiration from French bistros and American-style grills. Which is to say that the restaurant’s culinary ambitions are modest, but not necessarily low.
Deluxe fuels its considerable bar business with a decent spread of noshes. The chicken quesadilla is ordinary despite the roasted peppers (“The peppers make it,” our waiter informs us), and the creamed spinach dip should either be improved or struck from the menu, but otherwise, Deluxe appeals to both the reckless snacker (the crispy onion strips are worthy of Sam & Harry’s) and the refined nibbler lurking within us all. The roasted tomato soup on special is thick and smoky and topped with buttery hard croutons. The hummus-stuffed tortillas are dumb fun that include a few mixed greens. And the wild mushroom risotto cake bedded on wilted spinach is a square meal rendered small and urbane.
Deluxe serves the kind of food God created for Upper West Side types who never took a shine to all that ethnic stuff. Sandwiches sit proudly next to fries that are good enough to eat with a fork, and if modernity invades your plate at all, it won’t slap you in the face. Pickled ginger mayo is just the tart condiment that a tuna-steak sandwich requires. The roasted lamb and goat cheese on sourdough simply refashions complimentary ingredients into something you can hold. Ditto the grilled snapper club.
At its best, Deluxe’s food manages to be both folksy and refined. Meatloaf is touched up with a little crown of Creole sauce. Sea bass sports a fine lemon-pepper crust and is served next to a bunny hill of butter-rich mashed potatoes. A winey, rosemary-scented sauce moistens a cooked-to-order rack of lamb that, at $15.95, qualifies as a pretty good deal. Less of a bargain is the house’s rendition of a nicoise salad; someone’s fussed over its presentation, but the grilled salmon, which is grayish on the outside and raw in the middle, clearly was never rescued from its cold spot on the grill. One night, I’m served roasted chicken with sagging skin and a piece of apple pie whose crust hasn’t fully transformed from dough.
Many of the new Deluxe’s missteps can be credited to its fitful adolescence, and indeed, the staff is still underseasoned. To a large degree, the original’s appeal lies in its well-oiled machinery. Few establishments are as adept at controlling the crowds and pleasing them at the same time; if the hostess says your table will be ready in 50 minutes, you can plan on being seated in 45, and there seems to be an unwritten rule that
unsatisfactory meals will be discounted.
Part of the problem is that, although restaurants are relatively easy to duplicate, the intangibles that make them worthy of cloning in the first place are not. At the new Deluxe, a diner frazzles the bartender with a request for blue cheese dressing. He’s got drink orders, too, and someone else wants A-1. At the old Deluxe, the bartender would handle all of the above and shake a few martinis in the process. The new guy will probably come into his own. But when he does, will the scene still seem perfect if you know that you can experience the exact same thing a few miles down the road?
Cafe Deluxe, 4910 Elm St., Bethesda, (301) 656-3131.
Duplicating proven formulas isn’t the only way to expand. The ownership behind the Thai restaurants Busara, Bua, and Sala Thai is trying to prove as much with Konami, a new Japanese restaurant in Vienna. The design is angular and modern—as is much of the cuisine. Spicy tuna and broiled eel are exquisite, although neither rivals the tofu appetizer. The creamy curd comes cubed and fried under a lacy veil of shredded bonito, fried seaweed, and little snips of chive; at the bottom of the deep bowl sits a shallow pool of tempura sauce. “Have you ever had tofu so good?” asks our waiter. Not recently.
Konami, 8221 Leesburg Pike, Vienna, (703) 821-3400.
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