Restaurant Henri review: A crowd pleaser with room for privacy

Not rated during the pandemic.

The first time Frederick De Pue encountered a Bonnet rotisserie, he was 19 years old and working at Louis XV, Alain Ducasse’s temple of French catering in Monte Carlo. “I was allowed to clean it, not cook it,” says the Belgian-born chef, now 45, with a light chuckle.

Fast forward to 2022 and De Pue’s new downtown restaurant, Le Henri. One of the few ideas the chef didn’t cut out of his design budget was the three-spit gas-powered rotisserie positioned against a beautiful blue and white tile wall. Spend $50,000 on a single piece of equipment and you want people to see it. Visible through an open kitchen, the superb machines turn piglets, lamb and chicken into extra points of pride in a restaurant that’s both accessible and quirky.

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Quick, name another (good) restaurant that offers as much space for private events as it does for the public. A good half of Henri is devoted to isolated parties. Beyond the 60-seat bar and dining room facing the Warner Theater is an elegant oval kitchen surrounded by six rooms that can seat a total of 120 patrons. Larger rooms are named after the four seasons, have access to a separate bar, and feature a $150 per person minimum; the more intimate Dawn and Dusk require a minimum of $1,200 in food and drink per setting. Party planners work with dedicated staff to provide custom menus.

A cool kitchen appliance and abundant space for private events wouldn’t be the draws they are without a solid kitchen. De Pue, who also owns Bistro Flamant in Annapolis, did her homework ahead of opening this winter and created a menu that combines popular dishes with dishes not everyone does. Diners sit down to read about steak frites and crab cakes, but also celeriac lasagna and suckling pig pancake.

This pork wrap, a first course, is wonderful. Slices of pork, carved from a herb-stuffed piglet and slowly spit-roasted, are bound in a transparent chestnut pancake whose shocking topping – raw red onion and lime – keeps the rich dish in check. Le Bonnet is also the source of the very good cauliflower “couscous”. De Pue cooks whole heads of vegetables in the roasting pan, charring the outside but making the inside moist. The center is removed, finely chopped, seasoned with cranberries and parsley and spread over sumac yogurt. Fried parsnip strips add height and crunch to the colorful bowl.

Only three ingredients go into Creamy Crab Cakes: crab, mayonnaise, and thinly sliced ​​celeriac. A shower of delicious little tuiles – dehydrated potato chips dusted with mushroom salt – and a blood orange vinaigrette fill the plate.

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A Visit’s Mackerel and Apple Tartare, so salty it could serve as a deer lick, is a subtly seasoned tuna tartare tossed with the same chopped fruit and toasted nuts and served over a buttermilk vinaigrette flecked with chive oil. (To Henri’s credit, the cost of the initial tartare was waived when we informed the staff of the salt assault.)

Every other restaurant seems to serve meatballs, good use of leftovers (think toppings). Le Henri revives an idea from the chef’s youth – a meatball made from marinated egg – by placing it on shredded cabbage and carrots lit with ginger, and surrounding the orb with a spinach coulis. The name “Bird Nest” is appropriate for the stage and was designed with children in mind, the chef explains.

The most appetizing fish dish is the sautéed turbot, sprinkled with fresh herbs to flatter its delicate flesh and wedged on tender fennel. The buttered fillet is accompanied by panisses, long and soft chickpea fritters. The heartiest entrée starts with a basic, lasagna, and rolls out béchamel, black trumpets and wild boar to enrich layers of tender egg noodles. I love it, even though I feel my pandemic pants compressing with every bite.

Side dishes show the thought. A small garden of beans – crisp French green beans, limas and creamy gigante – is sprinkled with aioli. Do you hate kale? The Henri might make you love the robust green as it’s prepared here, fried in no time for the kale to shatter in your mouth. The chef says he wanted to offer “a European version” of the fried spinach made popular by chef Vikram Sunderam at Rasika in the Penn district. De Pue personalizes its version with marinated pearl onions and a champagne-raisin vinaigrette.

Creamy little Dutch potatoes are especially nice. Massaged with duck fat and garlic, the tubers take on more flavor thanks to the cooking juices from the chickens turning slowly on the rotisserie. But my favorite spit-roasted meat here is actually lamb, sprinkled with herbs, brushed with Dijon mustard, and presented in tangy slices. Deer sausage is also good. You can question the purple distribution of the link; the color is explained by the fact that the minced meat is first cooked in red wine.

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De Pue says he took his time naming the restaurant, trying to avoid anything associated with the lawyers and lobbyists who so enliven this part of town. The Henri pays homage to De Pue’s Belgian grandfather, a home cook known for his meatball tomato soup and for hiding chocolates in his grandchildren’s coats. The chef says his grandfather died aged 90, but not before De Pue showed him renderings of the restaurant, which opened on former chef Geoff’s site.

Designed by the owner, the dining room is cozy with enough padding to stage multiple simultaneous pillow fights, blue curtains to match the color of the smart menus, and a raised ceiling from which falls a beehive of beautiful lights – “cardboard recycled,” says the chef of the “chandelier” which impresses as much as the kitchen in the exhibition. People looking for oval tables, to facilitate conversation, will appreciate the multiple rounds that adorn the corners of Henri. Any dinner is enhanced by something from the sea bass; Shooting Star is bold with rye, sparkling with sparkling wine, racy with ginger and fruity with peach.

The desserts look mouth-watering, but they tend to be the menu’s weakest link. I was worried that my knife would smash the plate supporting a rock-hard, wine-stained pear with the almond cake, as well as the plate with the misnamed speculoos “pie”, which looks more like a cookie cutter. balls holding a bland pistachio. green globe of white chocolate. Better order a nightcap or finish some fries.

Le Henri opened at a tricky time in February. But more workers returning to their downtown offices this month means an ever busier bar and restaurant and a new hire at Le Henri: a second events coordinator to handle interest in private entertainment. De Pue is onto something, and it’s mostly delicious.

1301 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. (Entrance on 13th Street NW.) 202-989-5881. thehenridc.com. Open: Indoor dining from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday and from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Price: Dinner entrees $13-$21, entrees $28-$46. Sound control: 77 decibels/must speak in a high voice. Accessibility: No barriers to entry; restrooms are ADA compliant. Pandemic protocols: all staff are vaccinated, but wearing a mask is optional.

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