- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2003

When chef Cornell Coulon’s cooking at the new Dupont Grille in Jury’s Hotel on Dupont Circle is good, it’s very very good. And most of the time, that’s just the way it is.

This new addition to the trendy Dupont Circle dining scene was designed by the talented Adamstein & Demetriou Architecture & Design firm on the 19th Street side of the hotel. The use of glass affords diners the illusion of a table on the sidewalk, but without being subjected to inclement weather, noise or gasoline fumes. Very nice. Glass panels pivot and open to transform the area into a real sidewalk cafe on sunny days and balmy nights.

The “indoor” space is more formal and suffers from an excess of doors. Tables are either at the service station, by the entrance, in front of the door to the private dining room or in the area between the two rooms. The advantage is that the “indoor” space is peaceful and quiet and there’s less background music to overcome in conversation.

Chef Coulon is a New Orleans native, and his cooking combines French, Spanish and Asian influences, yet remains essentially nouvelle American cuisine. It’s an interesting menu; some dishes are excellent, and others don’t quite succeed.

Of the seven starters on the menu, shrimp ravigote is outstanding. Four genuinely jumbo shrimp (forget the oxymoron) are served in a martini glass atop a mayonnaise-based sauce with generous chunks of perfectly ripe avocado. The sauce is neither a true French nor a spicy New Orleans ravigote, but it’s delicious nonetheless, and there’s lots of it — well worth sopping up with some of the rolls served with the meal. (The rolls, New Orleans style French bread, are disappointing; they are not crusty and appear a little on the stale side.)

The restaurant prepares half a dozen salads, including a green bean salad served with new potatoes. For a light starter, the endive, radicchio and watercress salad is refreshing and a good combination of flavors and textures with the addition of goat cheese in the dressing of hazelnut oil and cranberry balsamic vinegar.

Tequila-cured salmon, unfortunately, was tough and very salty. The little corn blinis beneath the salmon should have been tender and hot, but were neither. The mound of softened fennel slaw on each blini did not contribute the right flavor or texture to the dish.

A spring roll filled with shredded beef, served with a tomato chutney and basil dressing, is an interesting and filling variation on the traditional spring roll. Other first courses include tuna tartare, fried squid with a parsley aioli and pan-roasted mussels.

Main courses fare very well. The herb and mustard crusted rack of lamb is terrific. Three little lamb chops come to the table cooked to order; they are tender, full of flavor and seasoned perfectly. The accompanying mashed potatoes with bits of crisp prosciutto are delicious. The dish is perhaps the restaurant’s best main course, a very successful combination.

Almost, if not equally, good is the steak with french fries. Sirloin is sliced and served with good, salty potatoes, the meat topped with a dollop of herbed butter. Very French bistro; excellent Dupont Circle.

In addition, beef is on the menu in the form of a ribeye, served on smoked Gouda polenta, and a filet, topped with Stilton and accompanied by a bacon and potato hash. All these meats are served on top of their potato accompaniment, rather than beside it. This ubiquitous quirk of contemporary culinary trends is all right occasionally, but not all the time. Serving meat on top of vegetables or potatoes makes the plate pretty enough when it leaves the kitchen, but at the table the plate quickly loses its attractive appearance and mounding makes it difficult to eat.

Breast of chicken, grilled pork chops and duck round out the meats.

Fish offerings (salmon, waluu and grouper) include two large rounds of grilled tuna. The tuna is wrapped in prosciutto, which adds both moisture and flavor. The fish is served on (again) a mix of chopped eggplant, garlic and French string beans. The vegetables, despite the garlic, are not so strong as to overpower the tuna and the whole is a fine combination.

For vegetarians, there’s cashew-crusted tempeh (a soybean concoction) with snow peas and sweet potatoes.

The wine list of mainly lesser known wines from California and around the world has some excellent, reasonable choices, many of them available by the glass as well as the bottle. Service is competent but can verge on the overly familiar.

Be sure to leave room for the fabulous rosemary-pear tarte tatin served with rosemary ice cream (it’s actually more vanilla than rosemary). The warm tart, with its melt-in-your-mouth pastry, smidge of caramel and fruit — the pear a pleasant alternative to the traditional apple — is out of this world. Try it, even if you can’t eat another bite. You won’t be sorry.

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