Cafe 15 gets a less than satisfying makeover
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008
Sound Check: 75 Decibels, Must speak with raised voice
In the main restaurant at the Sofitel Lafayette Square, they've replaced aubergine with red, quiet with din and some respectable French dishes with a lot of underachievers.
In short, Ici Urban Bistro is not an improvement over its predecessor, Cafe 15.
One can understand the hotel management's decision to inject some life into the six-year-old space, which was always lovely to look at but delicious only in fits and starts. Born with a silver spoon in its mouth, Cafe 15 had much to recommend it, including input from the acclaimed French chef Antoine Westerman and the day-to-day service of one of his acolytes, Philippe Piel. However, as evinced by the recent competition in the city -- foremost Central Michel Richard and Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert -- diners want casual these days, even in traditionally formal settings. Cafe 15, dressed to the nines with eggplant-colored walls, mahogany tables and gleaming Guy Degrenne silverware, was too luxe for the times, or so the corporate thinking went.
So, earlier this year, out went all the fancy touches, and in went naked tables, communal seating, a wine rack that doubles as a see-through divider and seats that feel nubby rather than velvety against the skin. One of the few holdovers is chef Piel, now 39 and the recipient of brand-new black casserole dishes, props thought to promote sharing food at the table.
But does anyone care to dip into the lamb ragout after trying it once? The braised meat is comfortingly staged with onions and olives in a heavy pot. But its flavor is elusive; with your eyes closed, you could believe you're eating beef. The best memory of a steak dinner here is not the meat, which is wan and cooked past the medium-rare that I request, but the full-flavored french fries that accompany the main course. Fettuccine with shrimp and a subtle wine-and-cream sauce would be an also-ran at the competition. At Ici, however, my companions and I turn to that main course when we're still hungry after sharing other entrees of little satisfaction.
Some of the French classics on Piel's menu are timid, even laughable, renditions. Take Ici's appetizer of snails ("-- please!" as Henny Youngman used to jest about his wife). The snails are tiny and meaty, good on their own but sullied by too little parsley and garlic and too much clarified butter in their pot. A sprinkling of raw almond slivers adds crunch but nothing more to the assembly. The kitchen's "mini" croque monsieur is (literally) a big joke consisting of supersize pillows of brioche supporting ham and Swiss cheese. The vapid sandwich is also cold on the bottom. Even the "crudite" salad -- spottily dressed frisee, fennel, asparagus and carrots -- tastes mismanaged. And if you've come here to catch a robust bouillabaisse, you'll leave disappointed. The collection of seafood varies in quality from bite to bite, and the puddle of pale liquid at the bottom of the bowl whispers when it should sing. Helping to sink the entree are its croutons (pale and untoasted) and rouille (mute).
There are signs here and there that, with a bit more attention, some of the food could help fill seats. A risotto strewn with wild mushrooms is nicely creamy but also jarringly salty, and its Parmesan tuile bends when it ought to snap. The solution? Go easy on the salt. The French onion soup is too generous with the cheeses and a bit too sweet for my taste, but I like its light chicken broth and tangle of soft caramelized onions. The remedy? The kitchen should think of the cheese as a veil rather than a down comforter. Steamed mussels cry out for a more assertive broth, and gougeres would benefit from being warmed before they're served in the bread basket.
Probably the single best savory item on the menu is chicken "prepared in the style of the chef's grandmother," as a server describes it. It's a simple dish -- free-range chicken framed with a fine hash of turned potatoes, mushrooms and bacon -- and a greatly satisfying plate in keeping with the revamped restaurant's looser philosophy.
There's another item from the main menu I'd be happy to encounter again. It's a side dish of macaroni and cheese, wonderfully creamy and generously dotted with bacon.
The staff is very good at smiling but less adept at meeting your needs. Juggling multiple guests and their wraps is beyond the ability of the crew at the front desk, and waiters seem to be everywhere but where you want them to be. (Can I get an extra spoon? My check? Anybody there?) The food might be less formal nowadays, but the wine list, with its prices in the clouds and big-name bores, is not. When I order a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape that turns out to be unavailable, my server shows up with a bottle priced almost $20 higher than the original request. A gracious sommelier would have delivered the news carrying another choice or two for the same price or less. In fairness, I ultimately paid for the bottle at the price of my first choice, but I wasn't made aware of that courtesy from the start. So I sat through the meal silently grumbling about the perceived switcheroo.
I can accept the design makeover. Ici ("here" in French) is simply a warmer version of Cafe 15. What's annoying in the replacement is the acoustics. Forget trying to conduct business or getting to know a date here; the music is better suited to a club than a place to eat. My head throbbed after every visit, and it wasn't from drinking overpriced wine.
So what's left? Dessert. Pastry chef Jerome Colin, 29, puts a sweet spin on what can be a sour evening with a handful of appealing desserts, the best and lightest of which is a little dome of semi-frozen coconut mousse with a crater of passion fruit-guava sauce and a base of creamy, caramelized bananas. Cut into the snow-white confection, and a beautiful orange lava flows forth, its tart notes mingling with the marshmallow-like texture of the bombe for luscious effect. Colin's full repertoire is on display in a dessert sampler that costs $12 and features scaled-back versions of his tart Tatin, whatever elegant cake he's made that day and a properly torched creme brulee.
To get to the best of this restaurant, a diner needs a lot of patience. Colin almost makes up for the many bumps on the way to the last course, but it's a shame he has so many obstacles in the first place.