A classic French bistro

Café du Parc, which bills itself as a classic French bistro, is a perfect example of why you should visit a restaurant more than once before passing judgment on it.

After two visits, I was prepared to declare the Gallic import, which opened April 2 in the former Chanel boutique next to the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, as one of the most exciting new arrivals on the Washington dining scene, and award it at least four Domes. Both a lunch at the bar just off the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance two  weeks ago and a dinner with my wife last week were impressive, evoking memories of meals I’ve enjoyed at traditional bistros of Paris’s Montparnasse and the Latin Quarter.

 But then I took two colleagues from The Hill to dinner at Café du Parc this week, and the magic disappeared in the wake of chaotic service. We waited a full half-hour for our entrees after our appetizers arrived, and no one could tell us what the problem was. Maybe the chef and his staff, all imported from France, were busy debating the French presidential election, or pondering the philosophy of Albert Camus or even the performance of the French national soccer team. But whatever the reason, it was très aggrevant.

I’ll chalk it up to its start-up status, and to the fact that my expectations were raised after the two previous visits, as well as the restaurant’s boast that it’s “overseen by one of Europe’s top chefs, Antoine Westermann, who supervises the menu to ensure that his vision of French cuisine is appropriately transposed in an American setting.”

However, I’ll still award it a credible three of my Domes, based on the handsome setting topped by the second-level dining room where Chef de Cuisine Christophe Marque and his staff work from an open kitchen; the elegant but reasonably priced menu for both food and wine; and the exquisite food.

While Westermann, whose restaurant in Strasbourg boasts three Michelin stars and who promises to visit D.C. four times a year (he’s also consulting chef for Café 15 at the Sofitel Lafayette Hotel at 15th and H streets NW) keeps a trans-Atlantic eye on Café du Parc, it’s the 28-year-old Marque who delivers the goods.

He does that, and more, judging from my several visits. You can’t go wrong, and I didn’t at dinner with my wife, by ordering two featured selections. One is an appetizer bearing Westermann’s name, pâté en croute d’Antoine Westermann ($11.95). It’s a mouth-watering concoction of veal, pork and duck foie gras, cooked in port wine and Armagnac and wrapped in house-made pastry with natural gelée. Eaten with the just-out-of-the-oven baguettes, it’s almost a meal in itself.

My entrée was equally impressive. A feathery-light quenelle de brochet (mousse of pike filet) served with slow-cooked Chesapeake crab and cognac broth ($17.95) practically floated off my plate into my mouth. My wife passed up the appetizers but raved about her moules marinières avec des frites (Maine mussels) steamed in white wine, shallots, garlic, parsley and butter, accompanied by the best fries I’ve tasted. ($19.95).

The restaurant has a nice informal feel. The ground floor features casual seating at the bar and tables, and there’s Parisian-style outdoor seating now that warm weather has arrived. The restaurant is next door to the Occidental and just down the street from the French brasserie Les Halles, and many customers are guests at the Willard.

My wife and I sat next to a couple from Westport, Conn., and their three young daughters, who were staying at the Willard but chose Café du Parc over the formal Willard Room because they were dressed informally. Rick Gaenzle runs a private equity fund in Manhattan, and said he’s a regular reader of The Hill online. Both he and his wife Maura and their daughters — Margaret, 11; Caroline, 9; and Isabelle, 6, who informed us that Margaret “used to be 10” — said they enjoyed the food and new-ness of the restaurant. “It’s fantastic,” Maura said. “We’d come back in a heartbeat.”

However, Rick told me in an e-mail that “the table service and pace was a bit slow for our liking, but maybe we are too influenced by our NYC experience and how quickly they turn tables up there.”

At a subsequent dinner, I persuaded one of my colleagues to try the pâté, while I ordered the assiette de cochonailles, a mélange of pork rillettes and duck terrine, shaved French ham and dry sausages, served with tiny pickles and toast. Again, both dishes were outstanding and more than ample in size. My other colleague was pleased with his salade du Parc, made of frisée, bacon, Roquefort cheese, crisp potato, croutons with a poached egg and aged sherry vinaigrette ($7.95).

One of my companions chose the supreme de poulet grille, free-range chicken poached and lightly sautéed in chicken broth ($17.95), the other sautéed hake filet with toasted pine nuts, vine-ripened tomatoes and basil sauce ($17.95) and I ordered the entrecote with sauce béarnaise ($23.95). All were beautifully prepared and presented, although my flat grilled steak, while cooked exactly to order medium-rare, was a bit fatty for my taste.

I decided to test the moderately priced wine list by ordering one of the most expensive bottles, a 2004 Volnay red Burgundy at $77. Most of the wines are in the $30 to $50 range, but I can’t resist a Volnay. This one, however, was a bit immature and lacked the power and finesse of a good Burgundy.

Chef Marque, a native of southwest France, honed his culinary skills at top restaurants in Biarritz and Paris before spending a year as sous-chef at Westermann’s famous Paris restaurant, Drouant. Four other employees also worked at Drouant, including the manager and pastry chef. Chef Marque clearly is planning to make his mark on the Washington dining scene, and I predict he will. But let’s work a little harder to correct the flawed service we encountered.

1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
(202) 942-7000

Breakfast: Mon.-Fri.,6:30–10:30 a.m.; Sat.-Sun. 7–11 a.m.
Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30–2:30 p.m.; Sat.–Sun., 12–2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Sun.–Thurs., 6–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 6–11 p.m.

Prices: Moderate: Appetizers and salads, $5.95–$9.95, entrees $15.95–$23.95. Luncheons average $25–$35 per person and dinners $40-$50 per person, with beverage, tax and tip.

Ratings: Based on 10-point scale with up to five Domes awarded on the basis of reviewer’s judgment.

Food: 9    Ambiance: 7    
Service: 5    Price/Value: 7