Henri restaurant review: A crowd-pleaser with room for privacy

Unrated during the pandemic.

The first time Frederick De Pue encountered a Bonnet rotisserie, he was a 19-year-old working at Le Louis XV, the French dining temple from Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo. “I was allowed to clean it, not cook” on it, says the Belgian-born chef, now 45, with a soft chuckle.

Fast-forward to 2022 and De Pue’s new downtown restaurant, the Henri. One of the few ideas the chef didn’t trim from his design budget was the three-spit, gas-powered rotisserie positioned against a handsome blue-and-white tile wall. Spend $50,000 on a single piece of equipment and you want people to see it. Visible thanks to an open kitchen, the gorgeous machinery transforms piglets, lamb and chicken into additional points of pride at a restaurant that’s both accessible and unusual.

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Quick, name another (good) restaurant that offers as much space for private events as for the dining public. Fully half of the Henri is devoted to secluded parties. Beyond the bar and 60-seat dining room facing Warner Theatre is a sleek oval kitchen surrounded by six venues for hosting a total of 120 patrons. The larger rooms are named for the four seasons, have access to a separate bar and list a $150-per-person minimum; the more intimate Dawn and Dusk require a $1,200 food and drink minimum per setting. Party planners work with dedicated staff to come up with custom menus.

A cool kitchen appliance and abundant space for private events wouldn’t be the draws they are without solid cooking. De Pue, who also owns the bistro Flamant in Annapolis, did his homework ahead of opening over winter and created a menu that combines mass-appeal food with dishes not everyone else is doing. Diners sit down to read about steak frites and crab cakes, but also celery root lasagna and suckling pig crepe.

That porcine wrap, a first course, is wonderful. Slices of pork, carved from a piglet stuffed with herbs and slowly cooked on the spit, are bound in a sheer chestnut crepe whose shocking garnish — raw red onion and lime — keep the rich dish in check. The Bonnet is also the source of the very good cauliflower “couscous.” De Pue cooks whole heads of the vegetable in the rotisserie, charring the outside but rendering the interior moist. The center is removed, finely chopped, seasoned with cranberries and parsley and splayed over sumac-spiked yogurt. Strips of fried parsnips add height and crunch to the colorful bowl.

Just three ingredients go into the creamy crab cakes: crab, mayonnaise and thinly sliced celery root. A shower of delicious little tiles — dehydrated potato chips dusted with mushroom salt — and blood orange dressing fill out the plate.

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One visit’s mackerel and apple tartare, so salty it could double as a deer lick, is of late a subtly seasoned tuna tartare mixed with the same minced fruit and toasted walnuts and served on a buttermilk dressing dappled with chive oil. (To the Henri’s credit, the cost of the initial tartare was removed when we informed the staff of the salt assault.)

Every other restaurant seems to serve meatballs, a good use of leftovers (think trimmings). The Henri resurrects an idea from the chef’s youth — a meatball made with pickled egg — placing it on shredded cabbage and carrot lit with ginger, and circling the orb with spinach coulis. The name “Bird Nest” suits the staging and was hatched with kids in mind, says the chef.

The most appealing fish dish is sauteed turbot, strewn with fresh herbs to flatter its delicate flesh and propped up on meltingly soft fennel. The buttery fillet comes with panisses, finger-long, fluffy-centered chickpea fritters. The heartiest entree starts with a basic notion, lasagna, and deploys bechamel, black trumpet mushrooms and wild boar to enrich layers of tender egg noodles. I love it, even though I feel my pandemic-tight pants compressing with every mouthful.

Side dishes show thought. A little garden of beans — snappy French green beans, limas and creamy gigante — are stippled with aioli. Hate kale? The Henri might get you to love the sturdy green as it’s prepared here, flash-fried to a wisp so the kale shatters in your mouth. The chef says he wanted to offer “a European take” on the fried spinach made popular by chef Vikram Sunderam at Rasika in Penn Quarter. De Pue personalizes his version with pickled pearl onions and a champagne-raisin dressing.

Creamy baby Dutch potatoes are especially pleasing. Massaged with duck fat and garlic, the tubers take on more flavor from the drippings of slowly spinning chickens on the rotisserie. But my preferred spit-cooked meat here is actually lamb, strewn with herbs, brushed with Dijon mustard and presented as tangy slices. Venison sausage is also good. You may question the link’s purple cast; the color is explained by the fact the ground 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 animate so much of this part of town. The Henri pays homage to De Pue’s Belgian grandfather, a home cook known for his tomato soup with meatballs and for hiding chocolates in the coats of his grandchildren. The chef says his grandfather died at 90, but not before De Pue got to show him renderings of the restaurant, which opened on the site of the former Chef Geoff’s.

Designed by the owner, the dining room is made cozy with enough padding to stage multiple, simultaneous pillow fights, blue curtains that match the color of the smart menus, and a raised ceiling from which a hive of handsome lights drop — “recycled cardboard,” says the chef of the “chandelier” that makes as much of an impression as the exhibition kitchen. People in search of oval tables, for ease of conversation, will appreciate the multiple rounds gracing Henri’s corners. Any dinner is improved by something from the bar; Shooting Star is bold with rye, fizzy with sparkling wine, racy with ginger and fruity with peach.

Desserts look enticing, but they tend to be the menu’s weakest link. I was worried about my knife breaking the plate supporting a rock-hard, wine-stained pear with the almond cake, as well as the plate with the misnamed speculoos “tart,” which is more like a bulletproof cookie holding a bland, pistachio-green globe of white chocolate. Better to order a nightcap or finish some frites.

The Henri opened at a tricky moment in February. But more workers returning to their downtown offices this month means an ever-livelier bar and restaurant, and a new hire at the Henri: a second events coordinator to handle the crush of interest in private entertaining. De Pue is on to something, and it’s mostly delicious.

1301 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. (Entrance on 13th Street NW.) 202-989-5881. thehenridc.com. Open: Indoor dining 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and 4 to 11 p.m. daily. Prices: Dinner appetizers $13 to $21, entrees $28 to $46. Sound check: 77 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers at entrance; restrooms are ADA-compliant. Pandemic protocols: All staff are vaccinated, but mask use is optional.

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