Le Zinc lacks some important elements
French bistro offers uneven fare, service
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011
In theory, Le Zinc, a new French restaurant near the National Cathedral, should belong on every bistro lover's checklist.
A leading Washington architect, Olvia Demetriou, is responsible for transforming the former Sushi Sushi into a dining spot that would look at home in Paris. And chef David Ashwell spent seven years at the esteemed Marcel's in the West End before moving on to helm its casual offshoot, Brasserie Beck, downtown. Save for Two Amys, the popular pizzeria across the street from Le Zinc, this part of Cleveland Park is not a restaurant destination. The neighborhood could use a flavor boost.
Le Zinc, which opened in July, is not providing it, at least not on a consistent basis.
Oh, the short menu reads like a list of greatest French hits. Snails and onion soup start off the possibilities, which continue with duck breast with lentils and veal blanquette (when is the last time you saw that war horse?) and concludes with lemon tart and a cheese plate. Having eaten my way through most of the choices over three visits, I can tell you that there are precious few peaks and too many valleys.
The good news is bunched upfront. The French onion soup is just what it should be. Its base is a nice balance of beef and chicken stock, its onions are sweet but not cloying, and its cheese is more cap than coffin lid. I'm fond of the tender snails, as well, especially the appetizer's intense demi-glace, which requires another basket of bread to absorb. Half a dozen warm oysters presented on nests of spinach with sunny spoonfuls of hollandaise and crumbles of bacon provide six excuses to go off any diet you might be on. Order the mixed green salad, and it shows up with a proper mustard dressing and lightly roasted tomatoes that speak to Provence with their thyme and garlic seasoning.
Sitting on a wine-colored banquette beneath a pressed-tin ceiling helps foster the illusion that you have left Washington.
Yet from the same kitchen come herb-edged slices of smoked salmon on a shallow bed of dry sliced fingerling potatoes, onions and gherkins; and tender sweetbreads spilling from a dull cone of pastry. Perusing the menu, a diner gets little sense of the season (raspberries with that duck in September?), and unlike just about every new place to eat these days, Le Zinc has seemingly minimal reliance on local ingredients.
Entrees find the most flaws. Steak frites is cooked the precise shade I ask for, but the dish has zero taste save for the pearl onions topping it. A diner will need every dab of the accompanying horseradish custard (a sharp idea, by the way) to make the entree palatable. A dull, one-note richness detracts from other dishes. Roasted cod finds white on white on white; the fish is served on a pool of celery root puree with a winy cream sauce that together leave a slick, sweet trail on the tongue. And that veal blanquette tastes as beige and dull as it looks.
The best strategy for dining here might be to ease in with one of Le Zinc's mostly champagne-based cocktails (try the gimlet, fragrant with opal basil), create a meal from a couple of appetizers and skip dessert. Le Zinc should offer safety goggles and a chain saw with its lemon tart. Its crust makes getting through concrete seem a snap by comparison. The pear tart is easier to slice into but ultimately not worth its 15-minute wait time.
Service is for the most part breezy and efficient. But not always. On my last visit, half of my party was seated near the bar while I was led to a corner table in the main dining room (it wasn't until five minutes in that one of us found the other), a wine order was miscommunicated, and a server error led to a $75 discrepancy on the bill.
The best place to find yourself might be the rear of the main dining room, where the walls are decorated with the menus of long-ago French restaurants, or in the raised space between Le Zinc's intime bar and an open kitchen. The cooks are appealingly framed by copper pots and wire cones for serving french fries.
It's a pretty picture that doesn't translate to the plate.