I left feeling embarrassed for the restaurant. There was plenty of tasty food last Saturday night at Menu/MBK with Mr. Green Bean and our good friends, The Oreos. But, oh, I cringe recollecting our dining experience. Let’s start from the beginning…
Menu/MBK is Chef Frederik De Pue’s second attempt at reviving the old Café Atlántico space in Penn Quarter. He shuttered his seafood-themed Azure six months ago and reimagined the four story space into a layer cake of culinary delights. The ground floor of Menu/MBK features a Market open 9am to 9pm for gourmet grocery items, prepared foods, fancy sandwiches and coffee to go or to enjoy with free wi-fi on the third floor living room lounge. At 5pm the lounge and forth floor dining room become BistroBar, serving Belgian inspired beverages and thoughtful European fare. The frosting in the middle is the second floor open Kitchen with a six-seater chef’s counter serving a special prix-fixe menu that changes daily.
On that particular Saturday night, we were led up to the top floor via the service stairs, avoiding the large private party at the bar. The view from up top reveals eclectic decor with a homey, loft feel. Bare bulbs and bird cage assemblages dangle down the central cavity as if inspired by Maurizio Cattelan’s 2012 retrospective installation at the Guggenheim, NY. We were seated and perused the drink list for what felt like eons until a server finally approached and opened with an apology. They were out of the three signature cocktails Miss Oreo had her eye on, and beverage service was likely to take longer than usual due to one bartender and a thirsty bar crowd.
The Bistro menu is small (literally…the card could fit in my back pocket), and divided into price categories ranging from $8 to $34. I asked the server if he would mind going through the gluten-free options with me and he preferred I ask him specifically about the dishes that interested me. I was interested in everything. He seemed fairly knowledgeable, but proceeded with caution, looking at me wearily after every “you can’t eat that”, as if I my head might implode after too many disappointments. To his relief, we managed to find some gluten-free options that appealed. We started off easy with a cheese and charcuterie plate that arrived with three sad looking toast corners on the side, one for each wheat-bellied guest. Sensing the table’s dissatisfaction the server quickly supplemented with more toast. We slowly nibbled, waiting an uncomfortable amount of time before we saw our server again to place our food order. He asked my three dining partners if they would like homemade parker rolls with bits of bacon baked into the center, as if any gluten and pork-eating American would say “no” to that!
As our main course was served the Chef De Pue I know and love from Table finally performed. Mr. Oreo and Mr. Green Bean both ordered the Chapel Hill Farm Veal Meatballs with panisse (chickpea fritters, though not gluten-free here) and cucumber mostarda. The masculine dish was plated daintily and apparently tasted “really, really good”. Miss Oreo’s Crispy Cod with lemon parsley remoulade and fennel looked and tasted just as our server had described/warned: like a fish and chips egg roll. According to Miss Oreo, the rolls’ potato and fish filling could have used some classic tartar sauce to combat the dryness. Neither dish was fair game for my fork. Luckily I was perfectly happy with my Artic Char, served skin-side-up over artichoke hearts and diced vegetables in a light broth with dabs of what the menu calls “lemon puree”, but I call butter. The fish was delicate with a crispy skin and mild flavor that allowed the artichokes to shine.
We were enjoying the last bites of our entrées when our server reappeared to apologize for the tardiness of our Peas and Carrots side. Once they arrived, it was clear they were worth the wait. These buttery, plump, green peas with carrot and potato slices redefine the TV dinner’s most common filler.
Pre-dessert we spent a few minutes analyzing how Miss Oreo and Mr. Green Bean’s second round of tea-infused, beer and gin based cocktails varied significantly from their first glasses and didn’t quiet resemble each other either. One bartender, really? I ordered a coffee for my second round and finished the mug before the milk appeared (they were out of cream). I was quickly distracted by the dessert menu’s Sundae with caramel popcorn and nougat ice creams, Coca Cola sorbet and peanut brittle. Our server was happy to finally bring some good news: the sundae could be served gluten-free without the unnecessary cookie crumble garnish. Of course, it was delivered with the glutenous crumbles anyway and soon disappeared to melt sadly in the kitchen while an actually gluten-free version was prepared. The ice creams and brittle were unanimous winners while the sorbet looked and tasted more like a 7-Eleven Slurpee.
We ended the evening filled with good food but a bad taste in our mouths. Even after all the hiccups, not one reparation was made. A simple courtesy dessert or on-the-house peas and carrots would have spoken volumes. Instead I am left to hope that Menu/MBK was just having a bad night but fear that De Pue’s recipe for this multipurpose space has a couple of bad eggs.
Menu/MBK, 405 8th Street NW, Washington DC