I walk past the northeast corner of 14th and Q streets five days a week. Of all the construction projects in Logan Circle, this corner has been particularly fascinating. Over many months, a long-abandoned laundromat building was slowly gutted and reborn into the dazzling French bistro that now stands pompously as the new emperor of 14th. Starr Restaurants’ Le Diplomate has been bursting with activity from the second it openend. Mr. Green Bean and I wanted to see for ourselves what the buzz was about and were happy to find an open reservation on a recent Friday night.
If you can elbow your way through the crowd at the entrance of Le Diplomate, you will find yourself transported to something between an elegant Parisian brasserie and a casual French cafe. A central bar is flanked by expansive, split level dining spaces packed with simple cafe chairs and tables lined with white paper. A handfull of burgundy leather booths accent the dark woodwork and salt-and-pepper tiled floor. Murky mirrors reflect the globe lighting fixtures hanging from high ceilings. A green tiled garden room off to the side transitions into a spacious outdoor patio filled with bright yellow folding chairs. Too hungry to wait for an outdoor seat, we opted for a cozy two-top by the window. Yet the interior space is so alluring, even the finest of days may not draw me outside. We settled in and perused the menu.
I began composing questions for our server, planning to challenge the new restaurant’s gluten-free preparedness and bracing myself for an arduous process. To my amazement, our server didn’t blink an eye as I waited for his reaction to my “I’m a special diner” introduction. “Have you had many gluten-free customers yet?” I prodded further. “Of Course! No problem.” was his response (in a French accent) as he took me through the menu. I was stunned that flour is not a key thickening agent in items such as Friday’s special, Bouillabaisse, and that the Frites are fried separately from glutenous ingredients.
Tempting hors d’oeuvres, such as the Steak Tartare and Tuna Carpaccio, are free of gluten. All four starter salads are either gluten-free or easily adaptable. Entrees offer a number of options in steak, chicken, veal, lamb, skate, scallops, etc. I was repeatedly distracted by the towering platters of raw seafood whizzing by, as our server continued to list dishes I could eat. Mr. Green Bean’s meal decision was easy. When in Rome (or Paris, rather)…it would be the Steak Frites for him. I followed his lead and ordered another French staple, the Moules Frites. G-free frites are impossible to pass up.
To start, Mr. Green Bean and I shared the Salade Verte with haricots verts, radishes and red wine vinaigrette. Large, crisp bibb lettuce leaves were sprinkled with Mr. Green Bean’s favorite veggie and thin slices of magenta radishes. The dish was light and fresh, a welcome beginning to the richness that lay ahead.
Mr. GB’s Steak Frites arrived as requested, without the wad of maître d’ butter on top. The thick, generous, cut of hanger steak is smothered in butter before pan roasting and needed not a bit more. He sliced me a piece to taste (the dish is g-free). The beef was cooked to a perfect medium (although Mr. GB thought slightly too pink), with a crisp exterior sealing in all the juices and flavor. I later went back for second and third bites.
The moules are prepared marinière style, which I learned at Le Diplomate means white wine, fresh herbs, and plenty of butter. The sauce was aromatic and well balanced with the subtle flavor of the mussels. While not a huge serving, the dozen or so mussels were each plump, flavorful, and situated loosely in open shells. There was not a bad egg in the bunch. I paired my meal with a glass of the house’s unusually yellow-toned rosé, light and refreshing.
The frites were everything I hoped they would be: double fried for an extra crispy shell, and just thick enough to maintain a soft potato interior. I alternated dips between the creamy mussel broth and the accompanying mayonnaise sauce (I can only stomach mayo when it is house-made French style and not squeezed from a plastic bottle). The serving was huge, surely I would not eat them all. Somehow, 30 minutes later, I reached back in the cup and found only crumbs.
Both of our meals left Mr. Green Bean and I little room for something sweet. However, it should be noted that astonishingly more than half of Le Diplomate’s desserts are gluten-free, or can be with slight modifications. That isn’t even counting cheeses and dessert wines. From what I hear the desserts are belt-loosening worth it and I will definitely be back to try the Milk Chocolate Pot de Crème and Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée.
Le Diplomate has done everything right. Executive chef Adam Schop’s solid food is almost besides the point when considering how seamlessly this zoo is managed. I was impressed with the service from the on-her-toes hostess, to our confident and knowledgeable server, to the sommelier hand delivering my wine, to the general manager’s visit to check on our experience. The authentic French ambience allows diners an opportunity to escape, relax and enjoy good food and drink in Parisian fashion. Bienvenue à Washington, Le Diplomate.