When I heard they had revamped The Jockey Club, Washington’s bastion of the old guard and sanctuary for the well-heeled, my heart sank. The power dining spot in its heyday, it was a place where gentlemen’s chauffeurs waited, purposeful young men, hoping to impress, brought their dates and fashionable ladies lunched in suits and jewels. It stood alone in cataloguing the comings and goings of elite Washington society. And though the menu rarely changed, there was comfort in the veal paillard avec foie gras and the delicate Dover sole meuniere. No culinary acrobatics here.
On a perfect spring afternoon we drove up to the porte-cochere at The Fairfax at Embassy Row. The original Jockey Club lantern stood beside the black-booted jockey, still sporting his red and white racing silks, and the etched brass plaque were in situ as we strode into the newly decorated dining room. Gone were the red and white-checked tablecloths and the dark-stained wooden booths (how they had held such charm is now inexplicable). In their place is an elegant, understated room flooded with sunlight, soft colors, suede banquettes and equine portraiture.
But the food, my dears, after all, that is why I have come.
Levi Mezick is a young chef whose modern French cuisine has thrown down the gauntlet to every French chef in this city as he displays a new dynamic for Washingtonian gastrophiles. Mezick trained under Edouard Loubet, the Provencal chef whose Domaine de Capelongue restaurant in Luberon sports two Michelin stars. He cut his teeth in the New York kitchens of Daniel Boulud at Daniel and Café Boulud, and later at Thomas Keller’s Per Se. All revel in three Michelin-starred restaurants and all are in the forefront of progressive French cuisine.
We started with a simple butternut squash soup with cinnamon croutons and cranberry coulis, nicely executed though a bit behind the season. But it was the next dish, a snapper carpaccio exquisitely articulated with rings of blood orange segments and red radishes swirling around the thinly-sliced raw fish, that foretold the glories that lay ahead.
We swooned and chirped over a glorious crab salad, a destination dish, mounted atop green apple gelee and celery root remoulade, an old French classic reinvented with a lively balance of creamy and tart. A delicious bread-crusted sea bass on basmati rice showed Indian-Asian influences with trails of coriander, tamarind and kaffir lime oil, highlighted by tender baby bok choy aswirl in an airy coconut foam.
A duo of Pineland Farms local beef — red wine-braised short rib and seared strip loin — struck a lovely chord among sunchokes and pommes dauphine, accented by a rich Bordelaise sauce fragrant with marrow bone, wine and herbs.
Sadly, desserts don’t measure up to Meznick’s triumphs. Pastry Chef Lisa Hood, who was at the Inn at Little Washington and Westend Bistro, will hopefully have more to offer on my next visit. For the present, a serviceable but plebeian chocolate-crusted Key lime cheesecake with raspberry coulis, and a Valrhona chocolate crème brulee with fresh berries will have to suffice.
It was too early in the day to tipple, but rest assured the wine list is breathtaking. Cellaring over 450 labels and vintages, it is certainly one to explore over many occasions. Mostly weighted on the French side, it ranges from Nuits-St. Georges, Pommards and Chambertins to Meursaults and Puligny-Montrachets. Yet there are also stunning brunellos and barolos and nine Chateaux d’Yquem to quibble over.
This “new” Jockey Club is as alluring as a first kiss. Just as impressive as ever, it has returned with a fresh cachet, a winning new chef and a dining room to match the restrained elegance of its cuisine.
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