Now that I’ve eaten enough lavishly priced, journal-entry-worthy meals to have earned myself a free ticket to Europe (love those frequent-flyer credit cards), I can safely say that I’d never wish to be the person who makes them. Sure, the perks would rockwine for breakfast, truffles for lunch, leg o’ beast before heading out to greet the groupies. It’s everything else that makes it seem not worth it: The slim profit margins. Catering to a public to whom food is fuel. Competing against egomaniacs with ready access to sharp knives. Spreading your talent as thin as carpaccio just to stay afloat. Worst of all, failure is certain for all but a handful when your stock in trade is ineffable pleasure. If the business blows up, how do you reinvent when that’s what you’ve claimed to be doing all along?
Yannick Cam’s undoubtedly pondered some version of that last question a lot. When the chef opened El Catalan two years ago, he was the man. His main restaurant, Provence, was a chef’s dream, a place where people would wait in line to taste what happens when a skilled epicurean thinks directly onto the plate. Cam had accolades to burn, among them a nomination for a prestigious James Beard Award. For its part, El Catalan was as sleek as restaurants come in D.C., and its menu promised a welcome departure from so much humdrum Spanish food. The problem was that the restaurant felt like a side project. Reservations were easy to come by, perhaps because Cam often wasn’t in the kitchen. Then, last year, a squabble between the chef and his partner at Provence resulted in Cam’s departure and, eventually, in that restaurant’s closing. All of a sudden, the side project is his lifeblood.
One can easily imagine a worse safety net, and great effort has been put into turning the not-very-old restaurant into something new. To mark his arrival as a more permanent kitchen presence, Cam shortened the restaurant’s name to simply Catalan and pumped up the menu to twice its original size.
The dining room’s been worked over, too. Once an open expanse of throbbing red furnishings, bright mosaics, and bent metal, the restaurant’s no longer so airy. Sheets of frosted glass now separate the bar from the dining room, which has been further diced so that, among other things, the kitchen’s no longer an open stage. The walls surrounding a new, private dining area now obscure views across the room, cluttering a space that once, adorned with mammoth mirrors and murals, conjured its own scenic landscape. Granted, first-time diners can still expect to be seduced upon entering Catalan; those mirrors are still hanging, the color scheme is the same, and there remain few public environments in D.C. that are as sexy as Catalan’s softly lit bar. But the room didn’t need to be fixed.
The newfangled menu is less controversial. It’s two menus, reallyone French, one Spanish. For Cam, the temptation to do in one restaurant what he tried with two was probably too enticing to resist. At first, the reformed Catalan was divided: It offered the Spanish menu in the bar, the French in the main dining room. More recently, all of the dishes have been combined on one hefty document from which diners can order no matter where they sit, and it’s filled with the kinds of things that Robin Leach would recite like rough-draft poetrygarbanzo bean timbale and fricassee of artichoke served with snails and black olive ragout; pistachio-and-mushroom-stuffed quail served with boudin blanc, confit of endive, and truffle fumet. Most of it tastes good as well.
Cam’s got a gift for making elaborate dishes taste refreshingly unmuddled, a skill that’s especially apparent when he’s dealing with the food of Catalonia, Spain’s most interesting cuisinea fusion of Roman, French, Italian, and Moorish influences. When the restaurant still had the “El” in its name, you could count on the kitchen to dazzle you only with the saucy itemsnamely the stews and the meatswhereas most of the lighter dishes tasted tired and tossed-off. But this unevenness is no longer a problem. Beef-rib stew flavored with orange peel and cinnamon is a heavy, heady delight, but it doesn’t outshine the breezy simplicity of baked cod served in a pile of soft green lentils. Tender, pink-at-the-center pork is sliced and arranged around sage-scented red bean ragout. If your waiter mentions a calamari tapa at any time during his long recitation of daily specials, stop him and ask him to bring an order; I don’t remember the last time I had squid sauteed so perfectly, so crisp brown and a little salty at the curvy parts, ivory white and gloriously chewy everywhere else.
Cam’s Provençal creations are also astonishing, as well they should bethey’re the dishes by which he proved himself, and many are nearly twice as expensive as anything on the Spanish menu. The chef’s French side reveals his flamboyance, which isn’t always a good thing; a plate of scallop-topped eggplant custard is much too mushy to love. But for the most part, Cam’s eccentricities manage to intrigue. That glop of black stuff nestled against the roasted monkfish is porcini flan, a mellow, earthy side that adds a lot to the plate without taking it over. Shellfish soup filled with cod-rosemary ravioli, offered as an appetizer, seems enough of a revelation that you can feel free to skip the $34 bouillabaisse. Instead, order an entree that comes with starch: The basil gnocchi escorting my rabbit medallions could be served alone, and every time I look down to find macaroni on my plateit’s there with the monkfish, as well as piled alongside juicy veal medallionsI feel like I’m being winked at.
Yes, Catalan is expensive. But that’s the kind of food Cam cooks, and anyone who’s well-off enough not to flinch at $20 to $30 price tags (you can eat much cheaper if you stick to tapas) isn’t likely to leave disappointedat least not by the food. Except for the night I eat at the bar, the waiters I get stuck with exhibit a strange blend of insouciance and ignorance, and in close to 10 visits in over two years, I have yet to find anyone at Catalan who knows anything about the wine list, which is huge. Our waiter one night pronounces “paella” wrong, suggests a wine he admits he’s never tried, and seems to think that the only time he needs to stop by our table is when we wave our arms in the air. One expects more from a restaurant that makes its own sausage.
It’s too bad: Just a whiff of Cam’s fennel-scented lamb is enough to convince me that he’s landed on his feet, and I still think of his chocolate mousse cake when I’m feeling naughty. If only he could get the staff to work as if they were one restaurant away from having nothing at all.
Catalan, 1319 F St. NW, (202) 628-2299.
Clear on the other side of the culinary universe sits Johnny Rockets, a ’50s throwback chain that claims to serve “the Original Hamburger” despite having been around only since ’86. One reader insists that Rockets is the only “fast-food restaurant” worthy of devoted patronage. While it needs to be pointed out that Rockets isn’t really fast food, and that Popeye makes better chicken than Johnny does burgers, the reader’s argument does have some merit: The beef patties have that thick, handmade look to them, they’re adorned nicely with salad-worthy vegetables, and if you want to throw an egg on top of it all, it’s only 50 cents extra. To ensure maximum pleasure, tell your waiter you want your fries crisp.
Johnny Rockets, 3131 M St. NW, (202) 333-7994.Brett Anderson
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