When a Restaurant Is Simply Perfect, Not Novel

"I'll only try something new" is as much a mistake as "I'll only eat things I know."

Novelty not required.

Photographer: Rob Lawson/Photolibrary

Washington is a great city for bumping into people. Physically small and compulsively social, it provides a wide range of acquaintance, and a narrow scope of space in which to go about your everyday business. So you are always running into someone you know -- on the street, at the doctor’s office, in the pub you happened to drop into on the other side of town.

This serendipity is usually pleasing, but never more so than when you discover that a couple you’re very fond of has, completely independently of you, hit on the idea of dining at the same place and time as you. We pushed the tables together; the waiter held our order while our friends decided. Then we fell into some of the best food it’s been my pleasure to have in Washington … and also to wondering why it had been so easy to get a reservation there.

The restaurant in question is Mirabelle, a fine dining establishment that’s aiming for Michelin stars -- and ought to get them, if you ask me. It’s run by Frank Ruta, who served as a White House chef under Carter, Reagan and the first President Bush. And it produces extraordinary food. Everything we had was a wonder, even if it was deceptively simple: the best thing we ate was an heirloom tomato salad, which was so perfect that one suspects the chef might have sold his soul to the devil in order to unearth the world’s best tomato, and learn how to serve it so exactly right that you could not imagine further improvements.

Yet the restaurant was not crowded. Now, I like to dine on the early side, when reservations are easier to get and you have the kitchen’s full attention. But it was roomy even for 6:30. Which is, of course, how we’d easily been able to procure a reservation not very far in advance, rather than submitting to the elaborate waits and protocols often required by the top restaurants in our area -- a regime that might strike a Versailles courtier as a mite overfussy.

This is a tragedy. Some of the best food in our city is going uneaten, and we wanted to know why. The restaurant has had glowing reviews and ought to be garnering word of mouth by now. So why aren’t people queuing up and anxiously begging better-connected friends to help them get a reservation?

There are the prices, of course, which are set to match the restaurant’s aspirations. This is not the sort of place that you meet friends for a casual bite; it is a place to dress up for a special occasion. And it will be out of the budget of a lot of people entirely.

All right then, yes, but: Washington has lots of affluent people with silly money to spend on food; I see them every weekend at Union Market, paying $30 a pound for fish. There are a number of restaurants from which you cannot escape without dropping hundreds of dollars on dinner for two, and yet, they are difficult to get into. The audience for expensive, exquisite food is obviously out there, so why weren’t more of them at Mirabelle last Saturday night?

I cannot prove it, of course, but my sense is that the crowds have not flocked as they should because the one thing Mirabelle isn’t is novel. In fact the Washington Post once described Ruta as having an “allergy to trends.” Most menus these days read as if someone sat down and said: “I like lemon meringue pie, but it’s been done. What’s our twist on the classic?”

At Mirabelle, there is no twist; the menu would not have felt out of place at an upscale country inn three decades ago. What’s special is the dishes themselves, because Ruta doesn’t do different, merely perfect. The salt, for example, was exactly right in every dish: so entirely spot on that you enjoyed it while despairing of ever yourself knowing how to salt a dish to within three nanograms of the platonic ideal.

The result is infinitely more rewarding than “Sure, you’ve had chocolate cake. But have you ever had it with lime marmalade and fermented bean sprouts?” I like trying new foods, to be sure. But a fetish for novelty is as big a mistake as a pathological fear of anything you haven’t eaten a thousand times before. Both are ways of fixating on the detail of familiarity, while missing the central point of food, which is how it tastes. And at Mirabelle, it tastes wonderful.

Figuring how to do one thing the best way is as important an innovation as thinking of a zillion different other things you might do. But in this market, I’m not sure it’s equally rewarded. The affluent young professional class is starting to look like the culinary equivalent of a jaded old roue, floating from place to place in constant search of the next rather than the one.

Myself, I’d rather have the one best than the many pretty goods. And as soon as I can figure out how to get a mortgage on the dog, I’ll be going back to Mirabelle to enjoy it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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