Young and Hungry

Snail Pace: What Does Mintwood Place Mean for Adams Morgan Dining?

Mintwood Place: What Does It Mean for Adams Morgan Dining?

If any D.C. neighborhood could use a new food icon, it’s Adams Morgan. For too long, the densely liquor-licensed area has been synonymous with one particular form of consumable. (Well, apart from the liquid kind.) I’m referring, of course, to that ungodly triangle of late-night gluttony, the jumbo slice.

With its super-sized proportions—it measures as large as a foot and a half—this ultimate grease bomb of sop-it-up dining has remained a symbol of excess and youthful recklessness in a commercial strip best known as a make-out spot for overserved Capitol Hill interns. The jumbo slice was chronicled ad nauseum (literally) in a 2004 feature in these pages. Highlight: A caloric analysis found that a single slice weighed in at more than 1,000 calories. Michelin star material, it is not.

Sure, over the years, there have been tiny pockets of respectable dining along the fringes of the 18th Street corridor. Cashion’s Eat Place, for one, stands out as a rare eatery that prompts discerning and sober adults to open their mouths and wallets in Adams Morgan. Still, even the critically acclaimed cooking of Ann Cashion and John Manolatos, who currently runs the restaurant’s kitchen, has done little to complicate the neighborhood’s longstanding image as a place more convivial to boozehounds than to chowhounds.

In recent months, however, Adams Morgan has experienced a modest spike in places that cater to grown-up tastes. Grungy dive bar Asylum, for instance, has morphed into Smoke & Barrel, a fashionably rustic joint that cranks out bona fide barbecue by Arkansas-raised pit master Vinni Waide. And another once-dingy dive, the former Adams Mill Bar & Grill, has re-emerged as Southern Hospitality, with a menu offering at least a few hints of refinement, from the crab and avocado appetizer served in a martini glass to the New York strip in a Merlot reduction. The neighborhood has even landed a more upscale brand of pizza with the recent arrival of Mellow Mushroom.

If this trend toward more legitimate eats continues, maybe one day, some stunning dish will eventually topple the jumbo slice as Adams Morgan’s most widely recognized culinary treasure.

But at this particular point in the area’s overall culinary development, I feel pretty confident in saying that the escargot hush puppy is not the savior.

The snail-stuffed ball of cornmeal is the signature element of chef Cedric Maupillier’s menu at Mintwood Place, the neighborhood’s most ambitious recent attempt at haute dining, which opened Jan. 29.

Mintwood Place: What Does It Mean for Adams Morgan Dining?

“It’s something that represents me and my identity as a chef,” says Maupillier in his heavy French accent. The 35-year-old toque, who’s been cooking Stateside for the past eight years, comes to the new restaurant with a pretty impressive résumé, having worked most recently under the esteemed Michel Richard at both Citronelle and Central. The chef’s CV partly explains how Mintwood had managed a level of early hype that doesn’t ordinarily accrue to a new eatery opening right around the corner from Washington’s answer to Bourbon Street.

“Escargot is very French, so this is my roots,” Maupillier says. “And I knew that if I was going to do escargot with garlic butter on the shell, it might not get as much attention than if I use it in one of the most popular snacks in American culture like the hush puppy.”

The snails are braised with fennel, onion, and white wine, then sautéed in butter with garlic, shallot and parsley before being added to the corn batter—along with still more garlic, more parsley, and buttermilk. The rolled snail balls are later fried à la minute when you order. These Franco-American hybrid hush puppies, priced at $9*, come served with a similarly complex dipping sauce that Maupiller describes as a remoulade with a dash of Pernod for a subtle anise flavor that is barely detectable on my visits.

Mintwood Place: What Does It Mean for Adams Morgan Dining?

As unusual as this snail-laden variety of the Southern staple might sound, however, it sticks with a proven formula in contemporary D.C. dining: Take a classic American comfort food, then add some fancy gourmet spin. Compared to a truffle-drizzled mac ‘n’ cheese or a foie gras-topped burger, though, the snail snack takes a little more getting used to.

“When I opened the restaurant, I didn’t know if it was going to work,” Maupillier says. But, he adds, “it’s one of the most popular items on the menu today. I think people have a lot of fun ordering it.”

That’s probably because of the novelty factor.

Tucked inside its rusty brown crust, the fleshy black orbs sort of resemble chocolate chips, but taste funky, not sweet. After biting into the things for the first time and pondering the flavor with a puzzled look on her face, my dining companion came to this rather stereotypically American conclusion: “I’d rather have a real hush puppy.”

However fleeting the public’s fascination with the escargot hush puppy might be, Maupillier is undoubtedly a talented cook.

For a Frenchman, for instance, Maupillier makes one hell of a Bolognese. Credit a prior stint working for Italian chef Fabio Trabocchi at the former Maestro in McLean. Hearty and downright heavenly on the palate, the $19 dish is even easier on the eyes. The presentation is practically pornographic, what with its leggy strands of glossy pasta, smothered in a buxom sauce of beef, pork, and veal all dolled up with red wine, fennel seeds, chili flakes, lavender, and tarragon, then liberally topped with freshly shredded Parmesan in a style somewhat reminiscent of a partly frazzled post-coitus hairdo.

Mintwood Place: What Does It Mean for Adams Morgan Dining?

Other dishes come off a bit less sexy. Maupillier’s current recipe for frog legs, for instance, calls for an earthy black walnut sauce that recalls a potent blue cheese, which even the chef admits may be a bit too overpowering for many diners. Maupillier says he plans to tweak that recipe come spring.

Fans of classic French fare will find a lot to like in Maupillier’s very filling cassoulet, which contains five types of meat and is cooked to a nice crust in Mintwood’s wood-burning oven. And locavores will be pleased with the chef’s seasonal specials, which recently featured rabbit served three tantalizing ways (braised leg, belly sausage, and grilled loin) with an Armagnac sauce on the side. Oh, and the $16 burger doesn’t suck either.

Diners expecting something vastly different from the all-too-ubiquitous urban take on rural aesthetics that now dominates the restaurant scene, though, will roll their eyes at the overly wooden motif. Stuffed rooster? Check! Antique-ish milk-bottle display? How’d you guess? The stab at country style makes Mintwood Place seem indistinguishable from District Kitchen, Drew Trautmann’s similarly rustic throwback located just across the Duke Ellington Bridge in Woodley Park.

Mintwood Place is a charming neighborhood restaurant, to be sure. It’s just not the transcendent dining experience that comes to define a neighborhood as an up-and-coming culinary destination. The jumbo slices are safe, for now.

Still, Maupillier says it’s a big step in that direction. “I believe the kind of food and service we provide at Mintwood Place is helping in giving to the people who live around here something nicer and not as young and not for the frat boys only,” Maupillier says.

*UPDATE: Over the course of reporting this article, the price of the escargot hush puppies increased from $7, as originally published, to $9. According to the restaurant, the change in price reflects a switch in sourcing: initially procured from Indonesia, the snails are now imported from France. The article has been updated to reflect the current price.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

Mintwood Place, 1813 Columbia Rd. NW, (202) 234-6732

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  • Scoot

    The jumbo slice will always be safe - there isn't really a huge overlap in patronage there. A city can be known both for its great inexpensive dishes (e.g. pizza) and its haute cuisine. New York succeeds quite well in this. I'm not sure why you've set up this false choice requiring DC (or Adams Morgan particularly) to decide between the two. Given the huge range of culinary styles in this neighborhood, why would anyone would think Adams Morgan needs a signature dish -- jumbo slice or otherwise?

    Cashion's is great, but there are also a number of other places for pretty upscale dining in Adams Morgan -- Little Fountain Cafe (!!), Mama Ayeshas, La Fourchette, Meze... all of which were ommitted for some reason in order to give a shout-out to Mellow Mushroom.

    I get that you didn't totally dig Mintwood Place, but try to refrain from bringing the rest of the neighborhood down with you.

  • Chris Shott

    Actually, I found a lot to like about Mintwood Place. Note the fawning over the pasta dish, in particular. I just feel that Adams Morgan needs a destination restaurant, something different, something transformative to help redefine the neighborhood. And I just don't think this is it.

  • Dan Riley

    Why can't a collection of excellent restaurants in a single neighborhood be the destination? Why must you and others in search of THE NEXT BIG THING RIGHT NOW just relax and allow the area to evolve and raise the food IQ naturally.Redefining the neighborhood is developer speak.

    Don't be so shortsighted - Adams Morgan existed before you and will do fine after you're gone.

  • David Hagedorn

    I think you're wrong about what it takes to redefine a neighborhood. First of all, there used to be many known chefs/excellent restaurants in Adams-Morgan: Mary Richter at Cities, Roberto Donna's trattoria, Belmont Kitchen, Cafe Atlantico. What killed the neighborhood were entrepreneurs opening hip, cheap dumps and selling drinks for a dollar.They scooped up as many of these places a possible, did the minimum to keep them from being total fire-traps and soaked the life blood out of the neighborhood. They brought in an element attracted by dollar drinks: drunks, college kids and people looking for trouble. Now the neighborhood is slowly, slowly crawling back. The hotel project would benefit greatly, but some people apparently want to preserve the charm of the ramshackle shitholes that abound in Adams morgan

    This is my neighborhood. I rarely, if ever, venture to 18th Street at night. During the day, for that matter. There is little decent food there. We love Cashion's and Perry's and now Mintwood Place. We are not looking for a transformative dining experience. We are looking for good, solid food and a place where we get a warm welcome from people who recognize us as regulars. I'm not looking for hamachi served in a smoking cigar box in Adams Morgan. Mintwood has a terrific burger, a great cassoulet, a good Hendrick's martini--to me that is transformative.

  • David Hagedorn

    I meant to say we are not looking for a transcendent dining experience.

  • Mark Furstenberg

    This review/essay makes me sad. I suspect your critic was trying to be clever, but to do so he had to ignore both the virtues of Mintwood Place and what is slowly happening in the Adams Morgan neighborhood.

    What defines Adams Morgan as a dining neighborhood is not pizza but the seedy bars of which Hagedorn writes, the greed of those who own the buildings on 18th Street and the complicity of the DC Government that long ago could have made life very difficult for those slumlords.

    Saied Azali who owns Mintwood Place and Perry's, the venerable restaurant upstairs (and with which I have been associated) and a few others (e.g. Scott Bennett of Amsterdam Falafel) have braved the decades in Adams Morgan, and hope that it becomes a vibrant neighborhood of good restaurants and good shops. As one who lives around the corner from Adams Morgan and has found it curious that 14th Street became more prosperous and attractive more quickly than Adams Morgan, I applaud them and wish your critic had more perspective about the city.

    Instead, he looks down on Adams Morgan -- that's his theme -- to be funny in a snooty way; so of course, he has to demean Mintwood Place.

    Did he taste the steak tartar or the French fries there? I doubt it as they are the best in the city. It is too bad he couldn't take his eyes off the Bolognese he weirdly found erotic long enough to pay attention to the flavors of the chicken and the skate? Did he taste the flammekuche? Did he notice that this is one of the very few restaurants in Washington that serves shad -- not the roe that's everywhere at this time of year -- but the fish itself? Did he taste the wood roasted broccolini or the socca or the sardines?

    Mintwood Place fails to define the neighborhood? Is that what your critic thinks is important? Or even possible? An urban transformation brought about by a restaurant offering a transcendent dish?

    What restaurants define Penn Quarter, the West End, Georgetown? Is there an emblematic dish that defines Alexandria? Adams Morgan is a neighborhood; it is not the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. It doesn't need a signature restaurant. Adams Morgan is a heterogeneous neighborhood where people walk, where parking is hard, a neighborhood that many people who go to restaurants elsewhere in the city find intimidating.

    There will never be a food that represents Adams Morgan. What we need is a diversity of good restaurants that serve those who live in the neighborhood and attract people who live in Woodley Park and Cleveland Park, Dupont and Kalorama. Mintwood Place makes a big contribution toward that objective.

    I hope that the City Paper will consider really reviewing Mintwood Place .

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  • A-lo

    "Adams Morgan is a neighborhood; it is not the Mandarin Oriental Hotel." Hilarious Mr. Furstenberg, and spot-on! Mintwood Place is exactly what Adams Morgan needs. It's amazing how neigborhoody and at-home this brand-new restaurant feels. It does not need to be a "destination" restaurant in order to be a success, nor does Adams Morgan need one in order to redefine itself. 14th street can keep its bocce ball courts, which will feel oh so dated in 2 years. To me, Adams Morgan is about having a nice pricey meal at Cashions, or walking across the street and getting a nice, cheap lomo saltado at grungy Granja de Oro.

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