Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Restaurant: Macon Bistro & Larder (Washington, D.C.)

Macon Bistro & Larder

Lavandou closes. Pulpo closes. Dino closes (or rather moves to Shaw). And (sniff) Palena closes. Things have been looking grim for fine dining in Upper Northwest D.C., particularly Cleveland Park, where a series of closures means there are currently four vacant restaurant store-fronts in the neighborhood. One could conclude that, with all the recent attention to new restaurants around 14th Street, Shaw and H Street NE, there is no reason to venture into this part of town for food.
But the conclusion that dining in Upper Northwest D.C. is dead is quickly proven false by the phenomenally good Macon Bistro & Larder.

Judging by the always-crowded dining room, this casual Southern-with-French-influences restaurant was exactly what the area needed. Located in the Chevy Chase Arcade, a historic building of shops just south of the Maryland border, Macon isn't without restaurant neighbors, but it is far and away the best of the cluster in Chevy Chase, D.C., representing an infusion of quality cooking and service almost without parallel for this sector of the city. In fact, given how much attention other neighborhoods are getting for their new restaurants, it's shocking (in a good way), that Macon's owners decided to open their business where they did. I, and other area residents, are all the more grateful for it.

Macon's swanky charm and energetic vibe are immmediately apparent upon entering the space. It's more bistro than larder, painted in cool shades of gray with olive accents that recede against artful photos and posters, including a map of sorts illustrating Macon's grounding in Macon, Georgia and Mâcon, France. There's a healthy buzz among the patrons that fill the dining room and spill out onto the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk, but the restaurant is never too loud for comfortable conversation.

(top) pickled cauliflower and cheese coins; (bottom) fried pickles

Dinner starts with a delightful amusé, currently sour pickled cauliflower with cheese coins, crunchy little cheese biscuits like gourmet versions of cheese fish. Our server's suggestion to choose a snack to nibble on while we make our menu selections leads us to a quickly devoured plate of fried pickles. The cukes' spicy breading is perfect for soaking up the cumin-spiced tomato aioli. All of these early treats taste great with a couple of cocktails, such as Water Lillets, a sumery concoction of gin and Lillet Blanc with the refreshing punch of grapefruit. We haven't even gotten to the meal proper yet, and already we could tell how well chef Tony Brown has married Southern and French tastes.

(top) fried green tomatoes; (bottom) bibb lettuce salad

But the next dish is all Southern, and it's a must-have. Macon's fried green tomatoes are extraordinarily good. If you've never tried this classic, you may not want anyone else's version. At Macon, thick slices of warm, tart green tomatoes arrive encased in a crisp, salty fried breading and served with generous chunks of smoky pork belly, spicy tomato aioli (the same one that comes with the pickles) and a side of watercress. During our first visit, we liked all the food, but this was our favorite.

Another night we ordered a bibb lettuce salad with beets, radishes and buttermilk dressing. Although not as much a show-stopper as the fried green tomatoes, the salad is good and worth getting for the rosemary-spiced pecans that adorn it.

(top) roasted pork tenderloin; (middle) short ribs; (bottom) roasted chicken breast

It can be hard to choose an entree at Macon, since they all sound so good. Roasted pork tenderloin rides the new wave of slightly less-cooked pork, arriving from the kitchen at a medium-rare to medium and garnished with spicy-sweet chipotle peach preserve that adds just enough zip without overpowering the meat. Given how often I see them around the dining room, the short ribs are a clear favorite. The tender, flavorful meat has a good sear to crisp its edges and is served over grits with a topping of crispy shallots. The moist and flavorful roasted chicken breast is also very good and is plated with bacony collard greens cooked just right.

Fried chicken and waffles

When our server told us the night's special was fried chicken and waffles, we instantly knew we had to have it. The Southern specialty was oh-so-satisfying. Boneless thigh meat is fried to a dark brown and served on a belgian waffle with honey-hot and bourbon-maple syrups. It's dishes like this that should entice you to get to Macon early; we had a 6:30 reservation and were the lucky last party to enjoy that evening's special.

(top) 'Mac'-on cheese; (middle) roasted Brussels sprouts; (bottom) Essie's biscuits

Macon's entree portions are not huge and the sides they come with are fairly small too. All the more reason to order some additional sides. The 'Mac'-on cheese isn't a unique take on mac & cheese; it's just rich and satisfying the way you want it, made with spiral pasta, cheddar cheese sauce and a crunchy panko topping. Roasted Brussels sprouts' bitter flavor is tempered with smoky bacon lardons, buttery roasted garlic and the earthy sweetness of black strap molasses. The house-made biscuits are also very good. I can't decide if I like them better smeared with honey-butter or pepper jelly. You won't have long to decide though, since your table will scarf these up quick.

(top) blackberry cobbler; (bottom) coffee praline sundae

When it comes time for dessert, you might not have much room, but it would be a shame to pass up blackberry cobbler served in a mason jar warm but not too hot, making it enjoyable even on a hot summer evening with its cool topping of crème fraîche. If something cold is more to your liking, the coffee praline sundae hits the spot. The strongly flavored coffee ice cream is decked out with bourbon-caramel and pecans.

Before leaving, don't forget to snag one of their sea salt caramels, which are divine. Commercial caramels never taste burnt enough--these are almost smoky in their darkness with a pleasant amount of salt to balance the sweetness. You might even be tempted to buy more from the larder (the "larder" referring to the restaurant's small offering of pantry treats available for sale to take home, including the biscuits, pepper jelly and cheese coins).

The service during both our visits to Macon was prompt, friendly and knowledgeable. During our first visit, our very-busy server always remembered to circle back with us, and made a point of getting an answer from the kitchen for me about the ingredients in one of our dishes. He also quickly righted a misstep that happened when our entrees arrived before our appetizers. On our second visit, our service was just as good, as our server, Allison, offered many good tips and paid particular attention to our wine needs, offering tastes of several by-the-bottle offerings before we settled on a sauvignon blanc--one of the better ones I've had.

When Palena closed earlier this year, I wondered whether we'd find another restaurant close to our home that could become a favorite place for special occasions or any other time we just wanted really good food. Turns out, we didn't have to wait very long for Macon Bistro & Larder to come along and fill the gap.

Macon Bistro & Larder, 5520 Connecticut Avenue NW (in the Chevy Chase Arcade between Livingston and Morrison Streets NW), Washington, D.C. (Chevy Chase). (202) 248-7807. Reservations: Open Table.

Macon Bistro & Larder on Urbanspoon

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