I had arrived at Convivial early – way early – thinking that I’d be able to nab a seat at the bar at 5 PM, and have a drink while waiting for the restaurant to open at 5:30. Bad assumption: The bar opens when the restaurant does, so I spent 45 minutes strolling around, stopping into the Giant grocery store, and playing around on my cell phone in the car, trying to stay warm.
Between Cedric Maupillier (whom I met when he was still at *Maestro*), Justin Guthrie (whom I met when he was still at *Palena*), and a favorable “First Bite” review from the Washington Post, it wasn’t a matter of “if”; it was a matter of “when.”
The “when” took about twenty seconds.
I was spotted, and there was nothing to do but take advantage of it – as long as Cedric was chatting with me, why *not* get his opinions about which dishes he’s most proud of, so that I can share them with our members? The interesting thing is that for all the obvious pride Cedric showed in his menu – and let me tell you, although Convivial is restaurant number five where I’ve known Cedric, this is the first time I’ve ever seen him truly *beaming* – the interesting thing is that he did not even mention the vauntedÂ Coq au VinÂ to me. Maybe it’s because the rest of the world is already raving about it, or maybe it’s because he knows I’m familiar with French cooking and might be something of a purist – I’m not sure; all I know is that, despite recommending several dishes to me with an almost childlike enthusiasm, this was not one of them.
However, one other member of his staff did, so I included it in my order, figuring I’d have some leftovers for the next day to go along with my lunch, which I also ordered here.
When I sat down, I immediately ordered aÂ GimletÂ ($12) because I wanted to unwind with a cocktail before dinner. Ninety percent of the time, this is a good idea, but this was before I saw the Drinks Menu, and before I ran into Justin, who came out after my drink was served. It was an outstanding Gimlet, but as it turns out, all drinks at Convivial are $12, and Justin has spent an enormous amount of effort in creating a cutting-edge, yet classic, cocktail program, and in retrospect, I should have let him select a drink for me simply out of respect. The Gimlet was terrific, but I was hasty in ordering it – next time, Justin – but it didn’t matter as much because your wine list is so remarkably chosen and fairly priced that I did something for the first time in my life.
There were two dishes in particular that I ordered solely because of Cedric’s recommendation, and you should order the exact same dishes because they were both unique, world-class dishes that reflect the immense talents of a chef – correctly trained, and now unchained – a chef who has labored under the watchful eye of others for a few years too many, and who has finally come into his own. Get both of these (actually, get the first three), and thank Cedric for the recommendations:
From the “Nibbles” section:Â Latke, Celery Root, and Dry-Cured LambÂ ($11), and from the “Cold” section:Â Cauliflower Blanc-Manger, Tabbouleh, Almond, Pomelo, and Herb SaladÂ ($14). I could go into great detail as to why these are such profound, inspired combinations and executions, but I’m going to leave that thrill for yourselves. Do not concern yourself if one-or-more ingredients sounds like it might not be to your liking – get both of these dishes. Just do it.
And then also from the “Cold” section, theÂ Veal Tartare, Poutargue, Cancoillote, Oyster Leaf, NiÃ§oise CrackerÂ ($18) – it isn’t often when a dish drives me to Google for more than one ingredient, but that was the case here. The oyster leafs are leafs that taste more like oysters than oysters themselves do. Put one in your mouth by itself, and you won’t believe it – it tastes exactly like you’re eating an oyster, but you’re chewing on a leaf.
These three dishes were among the culinary highlights of my 2015, and we’re quickly running out of days in the year. Get all three if you can, even to share with the table – you’ve got to try them.
Please ignore what I say in this paragraph, because everybody in the world is going Looney Tunes over theÂ Fried Chicken “Coq au Vin”Â ($18) in the “Hot” section, and I can easily see why. For me, personally, this was hot fudge on pizza – perfectly fried chicken, deep-fried in a high-pressure fryer, resulting in a thick, crisp batter which sometimes slides off the chicken, providing the diner with a bite of the batter all by itself, and it is glorious. A Coq au Vin sauce, seemingly using a full reduction (did you know that in Burgundy, a traditional Coq au Vin is made with an entire bottle of Charmes-Chambertin?). Both of these, as individual things, were just wonderful, as were the traditional Coq au Vin accompaniments. You know there’s a “but” coming here … but, the combination just didn’t work for me. The thing that kills me about writing this is that I respect the dish very much, and even got some insight from Cedric as to its origins (“It’s my tribute to both my home, America, and my homeland, France”) – it all makes sense. It’s just a simple matter of me not loving the sauce with the thick batter, and nothing more than that. I *am* a purist, and I merely prefer *either* fried chicken *or* coq au vin, but not both together – I’m well-aware that I’m in a minority of one, and that’s why I’m telling you not to put much credence into what I’m saying here, and to write it off as one man’s personal foible. Get this dish, and enjoy it.
For lunch the next day, I ordered something I knew would keep overnight, also from the “Hot” section, theÂ Beef Pot au Feu with Cheek, Tendon, Bone Marrow, and GribicheÂ ($21), the Gribiche taking me off-guard. Indeed, it reheated beautifully, and made me wish I’d kept myÂ Fougasse, the “bread course” that comes in a little paper bag. It’s rare, if not unknown, to see a true fougasse in this area, but here was one right in front of me.
Convivial’s wine list is way lower than average in terms of price, and is full of selections that are just plain fascinating. Remember up above where I wrote I did something for the first time in my life? I ordered a Beaujolais-Nouveau in a restaurant: a bottle of 2015 (yes, 2015) DuPeuble Beaujolais-Nouveau for a mere $30. I happen to know that DuPeuble is imported by the great Kermit Lynch, and for many years, was his name-brand Beaujolais: Up until a few years ago, when you opened a bottle of “Kermit Lynch Beaujolais” and examined the cork, it was stamped “DuPeuble.” I’d had DuPeuble’s Beaujolais, but never his Beaujolais-Nouveau, and I was tickled pink with what a “real” wine it was. Oh, it was light-hearted and not meant to be scrutinized, but it was a real bottle of wine, and not some bubblegum-flavored disgrace which 99.99% of all Beaujolais-Nouveaux are. I took the rest of the bottle home with me, and enjoyed it with the rest of my Fried Chicken Coq au Vin that evening, and then enjoyed my Pot au Feu the next day: It was a joyful 24 hours of Convivial, with coverage initiated strongly, strongly inÂ Italic, and the restaurant confidently rated as one of the best in Washington, DC.