Hopping around the piles of snow that still invaded the city’s streets Sunday night, many adventurous food connoisseurs crowded the dining room of Convivial, acclaimed chef Cedric Maupillier’s latest restaurant, which opened last November. The French-American eatery bears the mark of engaging finesse, combining transformational twists of classic French dishes with a dynamic atmosphere, setting itself apart as possibly one of the District’s best new offerings.
Convivial lives up to the definition of its name, which was imprinted on top of the menu: “Relating to or fond of feasting, drinking, and good company.” Although Convivial seems to largely attract diners in their mid-20s and 30s, its innovative dishes and fun atmosphere easily appeals to a broad range of customers. Openness to new adventures is the only prerequisite.
Upon settling in at one of the dark, wooden tables, menus and fresh bread were quickly brought to the table. The menu lends itself to two possible interpretative approaches: the Franco-European method of gradually building up fulfillment — “nibbles,” a petit-size entree, cheese and dessert — or the American family-style servings. Our party chose the former.
My appetizer of choice, the grilled white perch with octopus and crab bisque ($21), was exquisite in presentation. At first, the taste was somewhat indecipherable; the one flavor that stood out stemmed from the endive, a bitter Mediterranean leaf that colored the otherwise homogenous bisque, on which pieces of octopus and crab floated.
For my main course, I chose fried chicken “coq au vin” ($17), an Americanized version of the traditional bistro poulette. A crispy shell surrounded the tender dark meat. The addition of wine to the dish paired perfectly with the chicken. The silkiness of the wine intensified the distinct qualities of the outer sweet crispiness and the inner tenderness of the fried chicken.
My friend opted for a combination of mountainous flavors by choosing the boudin noire ravioli-chestnut-mushroom fricassee ($18). A chain of five small raviol-“onis” — as one might say given the proportions — was sheltered under a velvety layer of mushroom sauce, making for a delicious culinary experience.
Even after our filling main courses, we decided to peruse the dessert section of the menu. Among the eye- and taste bud-captivating selections on the list, we decided on the milk chocolate creme brulee-black meringue and the hot sticky toffee pudding-maple ice cream. (All desserts were priced at $9). Although the former failed to combine the flavors of its two components and sank in the excess of milk, the toffee pudding offered a palliative alternative.
Throughout the meal, the staff was very attentive and remained on guard without assuming an overbearing attitude, which contributed positively to the experience.
Perhaps one of the most enticing aspects of Convivial is the juxtaposition between the restaurant’s composure and its animated liveliness. At first glance, Convivial resembles any local bureau, as the restaurant occupies the entire first floor of a building, the facade of which is not homogenous. The restaurant’s layout conveys a sense of minimalistic modernity with its glass doors framed with steel, which form the base of moderately massive buildings. However, the interior boasts a somewhat singular sensation. Modern wood wall panels pitch warm memories of Alp cottages or Northern France chalets, while the color choices convey a detached sense of elegance, typical of haute-cuisine eateries. The pale wood dominating the central lobby bar as well as the two attached dining rooms creates a sharply elegant atmosphere. The lighting system and the symmetrically squared furniture contribute to making the dining experience cold, crisp and classy. The only warm color is an isolated red animating half of the bathroom walls. Nevertheless, the soft rock music playing in the background subdues the elegant atmosphere and creates an engaging atmosphere that easily stimulates conversation.
With its reimagined dishes and interesting layout, Convivial does not simply offer a delicate touch of Europe, but inventively adapts traditional elements of a certain culture to the standards of another setting, namely the modern American restaurant. The outcome proves just as experimental as it is unique. Ultimately, Convivial’s eclectic style and explorative approach generously justify the restaurant’s high prices, and transform this gastronomic adventure into one of D.C.’s best.