Matt Conroy, the engaging, recently installed chef-partner at Lutèce, brings a modern, French-inspired sensibility to this reimaged bistro at 1522 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Plates should be “fun” not fussy, he declares. Food should be “lighter,” yet full of flavor. Seasonal sourcing and a focus on technique underpin his menus.
Parisian gnocchi — one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes — illustrates Conroy’s bent. Using a light pâte à choux instead of potatoes for the dumplings, he adds bold flavor and texture with shishito peppers and mushrooms. Asked what gave him the idea for using the spicy vegetable, he replied: “One of my farmers sent me a list, and I wanted to find a way to get this [ingredient] on the menu.”
Just about everything on that menu shows his distinctive touch. Steak with creamed kale gets a Japanese dash with charcoal grilling. Charred cabbage with tahini, Parmesan cheese and sesame seeds reinterprets Caesar salad. A Dijon miso is slipped into the classic burger to give it an “umami twist and creamy element.” At brunch, the bacon, egg and cheese burrito features a Béarnaise sauce that has been lightened by aeration.
Conroy is constantly developing seasonal dishes. The latest addition: a vegan celery root soup that, he explains, “relies on cooking smarts and lots of vegetables to invoke the creamy mouthfeel of butter and cream.” These cooking smarts are especially notable in the captivating Kaluga caviar also on the menu. For this dish, he uses a French technique to form a soft potato cake into Lincoln logs that are fried until crispy and topped with caviar and a horseradish crème.
Thirty-five years old, Conroy started cooking in restaurants when he was just 14. A neighbor in his hometown of Lawrence, Massachusetts, worked in a diner and asked him if he wanted to work there, too. Conroy started out cracking eggs at 6 a.m. and soon learned how to make omelets and pancakes. He watched and learned and was given more responsibility. He has no formal culinary school training; he couldn’t afford it. Instead, he reads cookbooks and learned on the job.
In Boston, he worked with Tony Maws, a leader in modern bistro cooking. He then moved to New York City, where he worked for some 10 years — most recently at the Michelin-starred Mexican restaurant Oxomoco in Brooklyn. He has worked in fine-dining French restaurants and spent time in France and Mexico. Asked about his cookbook education, he cites the lessons of Thomas Keller’s “The French Laundry Cookbook”: “standards, attention to detail and searching for perfection.”
His wife, a pastry chef, is still in New York, but will be joining him in D.C. soon. Meanwhile, on his days off, he takes 35-to-40-mile bike rides exploring our scenic byways.
Lutèce has embraced street-side dining. Cheery blue-and-white-striped umbrellas and marble-topped tables are spaced along the front of the restaurant and two adjacent storefronts. Heaters warm diners on chilly days. The Popals, the bistro’s proprietors, are working with a Baltimore architect and the Georgetown Business Improvement District to develop a sturdy yet removable structure that will contain heat while permitting airflow.
Conroy is confident that, whatever the challenges for winter dining in D.C., he and the Popals can “figure it out and adapt.”