D.C.’s Plume: flavor and luxury worthy of the President [classic article]

Tamar Alexia Fleishman

It’s fun to head over the Maryland line into D.C. to check out what they’re doing culinary-wise in the nation’s capital. You can even take the MARC train from Baltimore if you like. Do you prefer the idea of when it’s your special night out, your table is private in some way — facing an angle, or being in a secluded nook? Whether it’s a special occasion on your personal calendar or you just want to enjoy an exquisite menu, it’s nice not to have tables lined up and crowded together like sleepover camp or a county detention center! Some nooks even have the appearance of eating at your own outdoor European cafe’. There’s even a special nook that one can reserve, curtain yourself off and be in complete seclusion, called “The Bird’s Nest”. The minimum requirement is ordering the Chef’s Tasting Menu with premium wines. The ability to enjoy your repast in VIP-like privacy is just one of the glories of eating at an award-winning restaurant just steps from the White House: Plume at The Jefferson. President Obama has 5 attended fundraising events there in the past 3 months and to underscore the point, I saw the Presidential limousine when I was there. I’m sure glad I had a chance to experience it!

The music in the background has a wide variety, from classical to jazz to even bits of club music. Dress is special occasion dressy.

Pretty much every travel and lifestyle magazine in the United States has given special awards and accolades to Plume. They’ve received 4 diamonds from AAA (read HERE to see what the diamonds mean), The Robb Report calls it “The Best of the Best” and Wine Spectator gave it Best of Award of Excellence.

Michael Scaffidi has passed the Advanced exams of the Court of Master Sommeliers. His knowledge of wine is intense, but not intimidating. He realizes that people will have lots of questions with such a collection, that they don’t have his training and he is very happy to answer them. He does hold wine classes, referencing such down-to-earth examples as Keanu Reeves. He also stocks over 200 half bottles, so that you can make less of a commitment while exploring.

Plume has a dazzling wine collection. They have acclaimed wines, hidden gems, varietals from around the world. They also have many extremely rare vintages, including a Madeira — wine afficionado’sThomas Jefferson’s favorite wine — from 1780! He easily could have sipped this wine. For $7,000 a bottle or $240 a glass, you can too. Plume’s collection has so much depth, though, that you can find gems at all price points. Scaffidi’s attention to detail is appreciated; he serves Gruner Veltliner wine in the traditional green-stemmed glasses, for example.

Chef Chris Jakubiec started out his young years as a vegan, but definitely has branched into all the food sources. He describes his cuisine as “traditional food, done right” with attention to impeccable cuts, proper seasoning and classic technique. What he also has is a knack for expanding the knowledge of your taste buds, even in traditional fare. He also has a master sense of how a meal’s flavors should progress throughout the evening. I started out life as a classically trained professional violinist and the meal definitely evoked in my mind the art, craftsmanship, drama and tension-building of the classic form of a Beethoven symphony. In musical “Sonata Form,” there can be an introduction and coda, but there’s definitely an exposition, development and recap. To most properly experience Jakubiec’s mastery, go for his tasting menu. Because I had my Dining Companion with me, I was also able to taste the alternate choices of certain courses. The portions for a tasting menu were generous.

The bread course came with butter, finely grained Himalayan pink salt and heavier black lava salt, butter and two olive oils — one tangier and more piquant, one more buttery.

The chef’s introduction was seen through the truffled gourgiers, light little pastry puffs. The chef didn’t just add truffles as a way to convey luxury; rather, it was a hint of flavors to come, just like a Beethoven symphony. The pastries were tender, with a truffle-y center.

An amuse bouche was a mini crab cake with micro arugula. It gave a peek at seafood flavors and the choice salad to come.

Two different openers showed that the chef’s vegan days are long behind him and that he is appreciative of meat. The rabbit Gallantine showed rabbit two ways: with a rabbit confit rillette and the rich, spreadable Gallantine with pistachos and grainy mustard. The rabbit was mild, yet still flavorful. Not everything has to “taste like chicken,” my friends. The sharpness of the mustard was a perfect foil for the rich meat.

Another opener that perks one’s interest in more intense flavors to come is the seared fois gras medallion with white onion puree, blackberries and brioche. The meat is sweet, but refreshingly not treated as if it were a dessert. White onion puree is sharper than yellow, for example. It’s nice to get back to a variety of onions! Not everything has to be a Southern onion and even they aren’t as apple-sweet as their marketers would have you believe. Vive la difference! It was interestingly and refreshingly paired with Champalou, Chenin Blanc, “Fondraux,” Vouvray, Loie Valley, France 2009. This is a marked change from most people pairing fois gras with Sauternes, which the sommelier is not fond of pairing with savories. The Chenin Blanc’s texture was lighter and cleaner, to cut through the meat and heighten — not deaden — the richness of it. He acknowledged that one could also do an aged Reisling with it.

Next came the Raw and Cooked Vegetable Salad. I must confess, I snapped a pic of the recipe in a Chateaux and Relais cookbook to make at home, but I’m never going to be able to get the quality of ingredients to do it. I’m pursing my lips now, thinking of the wilty baby lettuces in a bag that I have in the ‘fridge. It’s one of the chef’s famous creations, being tasty and quite gorgeous. It had asparagus marmalade, big slices of fresh truffle — usually, one is lucky andfortunate in the cash sense of the word to just get the canned variety or little shavings like fairy dust. As in, “Was that the truffle part? Maybe that was the pepper…”. It was great to be able to eat it in all its glory. The salad also had a tomato tapenade component, what some celeb chefs call the “caviar” of the tomato. There were also beets, candy cane radishes and carrots. The raw and cooked textures well complemented each other.

It’s quite cool to offer a tasting portion of a bouillabaisse. My dad used to go gaga for bouillabaisse, but it was always a full commitment. It was a big bucket of that and nothing else, save for bread. Therefore, I never –and nobody else I ever knew — would order it. Plume does a great presentation of it, placing the manageable bowl of seafood down and pouring a bit of savory, intensely flavored tomato-seafood stock in front of the diner. There was Chesapeake rockfish, as well as mussels, whole succulent shrimp with all of their parts and flavors left intact — more development of the taste expanding proteins, see? — as well as braised fennel. It was served with a saffron potato roue’, which I was told you could add to the dish or eat by itself. I wasn’t really sure what its role was, to tell you the truth. I had never seen it with bouillabaise before. I had to ask the server.

Now, we come to the symphonic climax of the evening, the entree. The venison loin was served with red pearl onions, butternut squash, salsify, parsnip and venison reduction. The meat and veggies are robust, which the whole meal has prepped your mouth for. The venison itself was tender, lean and mineraly. The flavor is intense, the way game is supposed to be.

Another entree on the chef’s tasting menu was the BBQ Yorkshire pork tasting. It was plated with bacon-wrapped loin, tenderloin, belly confit, pulled pork bbq, a mini cornbread and mustard greens. According to USA Today’s Dana Moskowitz –citing Bill Niman of the Niman Ranch, which I just wrote about HERE — Yorkshire pork is a heritage breed that can also be found in industrial pork, but you’ll surely notice the difference in flavor. They are allowed to live outside and develop fat and flavor. Pork took a turn for the worse for the other marketing campaigns that was just brainwashing: “The Other White Meat”. For years, the only pork one could get was bred to be lean and mild/bland. That’s pretty much what’s at your typical grocery store. So much so, that when I’m with extended family that loves to put that stuff — and I mean that in the old-fashioned sense of the word — on a spit, I usually go somewhere else and occupy my time reading Allure’s Best of Beauty issue or playing with the dog. Plume’s pork is a whole ‘nother creature altogether and it might catch you off guard to taste the flavor and texture of what pork used to be like. Certainly, this is what it was like in Jefferson’s day. The pork loin was very tender and not overcooked, moister than you might remember pork to be like and rich. The pork tenderloin had a meatier flavor and was less rich. It was definitely not like the stuff I avoid from the spit. The pulled pork was spicy with good texture. Some pulled pork is shredded to the point of pablum, but not here.The pork belly had two distinct components: rich fat and meaty, drier meat attached — two flavor ideas in one bite.

As a coda to the meal, dessert is served in what is really four components. With the dessert, the wine served was a luscious Klein Constantia, Muscat-Steen, Constantia, South Africa 2006. I was informed that this wine has been around a long time: Jefferson, Napoleon and Jane Austen drank it. I had a professor in college who’s a expert in Austen and my mom’s actually a Brit Lit scholar, too, but I never heard them talking about Austen drinking anything except tea. My mom would probably say that shows what I know of Austen. This wine should be right on everyone’s radar! It’s great and quite a different wine than some of the other South African wines I have tasted. The “Steen” is actually what we’d call Chemin Blanc, with apricot and cinnamon notes.

To refresh the palate, a Chinese soup spoon of apple marmalade with quince sorbet was served. Apple, of course, is a very Jeffersonian flavor.

The main dessert was Guanaja molten chocolate cake with crystallized kumquats and “coconut variation”, which was coconut sorbet on a coconut biscotti. The molten chocolate was mini — jus the right portion — with a lovely, creamy sorbet. Kumquat is a great citrus that is so tender, you eat the peel. It used to be so popular when I was a kid; it should be back in peoples’ consciousness today.

After dessert, the server brings on a silver tray assorted sweets like pomegranate macarons. As a reminder, macaronsare light, delectible and French. Macaroons are mushy and come in a can for Passover. Again, vive la difference! Other goodies on the tray include chocolate covered passionfruit lollipops.

When you leave, a little chocolate box is handed to you, with the teeniest, most artistic hand-made chocolates. I once took a chocolate making class at Le Cordon Bleu; I ended up with stuff all over the walls and had to clean it. Chocolate making is an art and a science. Some people may be too full at this point for their chocolates and to that I say, “To the victor go the spoils!”

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